Q&A: Community Colleges Aim to Take Point in Post-Coronavirus Recovery

Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, discusses how these institutions have evolved to better serve today’s students and how those students will transform the state
Aaron Fichtner

The New Jersey Council of County Colleges recently released a paper describing the role of community colleges in addressing the educational and workforce needs stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, work to be done in concert with government and the private sector. In this Q&A, Aaron Fichtner, the council’s president and a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, discusses how community colleges have evolved over the years and will continue to do so as its plan, “Vision and Action: Community Colleges as Leaders in the Response to and Recovery From This Crisis” is implemented.

Q: How have New Jersey community colleges changed over the years?

Fichtner: Community colleges were created in New Jersey 50 years ago to expand access to postsecondary education at a low cost. Many started with a goal of students transferring to a four-year college. What we’re seeing now is a much more blended, comprehensive approach, which is not an either/or between being a transfer institution or one connected to the local economy. There are very strong advantages to both.

Our students, while they want to be educated and well-rounded, also think about what are they going to do to support themselves and earn a family-supporting wage. Many don’t go to college in a linear fashion and are over age 25, working and a good number have children. We serve very diverse educational needs, and now with the challenges presented by the coronavirus, have an opportunity to lead and collaborate in even more ways.

Q:  What roles do you envision for community colleges in our post-pandemic state?

Fichtner:  As described in the Vision and Action plan, the council believes community colleges can be valuable partners in four areas the state needs to address to emerge strong from the pandemic: 1) build and support the health care workforce; 2) help unemployed residents find new career opportunities; 3) offer effective and efficient pathways to earning a postsecondary degree; and 4) provide workforce training and education programs to meet critical market needs.

The economy and jobs that emerge when this crisis is over may look somewhat different from what we left behind. That’s why we need to be very focused on helping individuals who have lost their jobs transition to new employment. Our skilled workforce has always been our main competitive advantage in our state. If we lose sight of that, it’s going to set us back considerably in terms of economic recovery and competitiveness. We are very proud that our community colleges have strong connections to their local business communities and are constantly changing their courses and offerings based on the needs of local employers.

Q: How did the council develop this newest plan?

Fichtner: The Vision and Action plan’s roots are in the Council’s Vision 2028, which describes a collaborative, agile and innovative future for New Jersey community colleges. That was our framework, but we also had many meetings and conversations with community college presidents and representatives from academic affairs, student services and business administration over the last several weeks. We didn’t develop all the Vision and Action ideas from scratch, but we also realized that this is not a time for traditional strategies.

Every Vision and Action item will have its own unique action plan and different sets of partners. We’re reaching out to our existing partners from community colleges and key members of the Murphy administration, as well as building some new relationships. We recognize the importance of collaboration — we’re going to join together with a myriad of partners and not going to just magically do this alone.

Here’s one example. We’ll be speaking with the state’s major hospitals, health care associations and other health-related employers to understand their needs and partner with them more effectively to upgrade their current employees’ skills. There are a lot of employees in health care who don’t have postsecondary degrees, but if they did, might move up the ladder, be more productive and really have a career at that hospital or association. We have good relationships with many health care employers already, but these discussions will more intensively focus on how community colleges can help build up the health care workforce.

We’ll also be building stronger connections with high schools and four-year colleges to map career pathways so a 16-year-old can more clearly understand what their future might look like. Or that a 20-year-old working in an entry-level position at a hospital can understand the benefit of going to a community college and getting a credential or degree and then transferring to a four-year institution if they so choose.

Q: How will you measure the success of the Vision and Action plan?

Fichtner: It all hinges on collaboration. The innovations and partnerships that come out of this effort can help the state come back from this crisis stronger than ever before. We believe that community colleges are uniquely positioned as the connecting point between high schools and four-year colleges, their local communities and businesses.