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Community Colleges Can Help Drive Economic Recovery

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Monday, September 21, 2020   

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Community colleges could play a major role in helping the state bounce back from the coronavirus recession, according to the authors of a new report.

More than 16 million Americans have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and it's estimated many of those positions aren't coming back.

In rural Tennessee, community colleges are often one of the few places residents can find opportunities to re-skill, participate in apprenticeships, and learn about emerging industries.

Sam Rowell, vice president of economic and workforce development for Northeast State Community College, said having an embedded relationship with local business and industry is key to helping students retool.

"Our regional center for advanced manufacturing is in partnership with area industries," Rowell said. "And we actually have non-credit and credit training going on, we have incumbent workers taking credit classes as part of their apprenticeships. And then we have students who aspire to work at those companies taking those same classes."

More than 660,000 Tennesseans work in industries vulnerable to COVID-19's economic effects. The state's unemployment rate hovered around 8.5% in August.

Rowell said enrollment is slightly down this semester, noting many students are juggling child care or remote learning. He said his college has increased course schedule flexibility in response.

"You have individuals who might have been taking classes, that have school-age students at home that are taking classes online as well," Rowell said. "Child care is something that comes up quite a bit in conversations."

Rowell said community colleges across the country will have to adapt to meet the needs of students and the regional economy.

"We are doing some things being creative," Rowell explained. "We have a second-term semester that starts in October. We also reach out to any of the businesses and industries in our region that have been impacted by COVID or employees, as part of any opportunities we have for grant funding to help support those individuals who have been displaced; that's been a priority for us."

According to one estimate, 80% of community college students hold down a job alongside their school work, and 15% are single parents. According to data from the Tennessee Board of Regents, about 88,000 students are enrolled in community colleges statewide.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.


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