Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

2020 was a cruel year. There was so much confusion and sickness and bitterness. But for inspired individuals and institutions, chaos and disruption create opportunities for positive change. What are the challenges and prospects for training and education in 2021 and beyond? My focus is on community colleges — critical industry training partners and what the American Association for Community Colleges calls “the gateway to the American dream—the learning resource needed to sustain America’s economic viability and productivity.”

In the United States, community colleges have been vital workforce development providers and ladders to success for generations of underserved, economically challenged and diverse populations. However, the coronavirus pandemic has hurt community colleges and, therefore, the entire career training ecosystem. Below, I propose three key challenges but also opportunities for community colleges and corporate training teams as we hobble into 2021 bruised and exhausted — but hopeful.

Challenge 1: Steep Community College Enrollment Decline

Undergraduate enrollment data for fall 2020 from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that part-time and full-time enrollment at community colleges nationwide is down 18.9% from the year before (with students of color impacted the most), compared with declines of 10.5% for public four-year colleges and 8.5% for private, nonprofit four-year schools.

This trend also is reflected in October 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data showing that approximately 44% of households with prospective community college students have cancelled their children’s college plans. The two biggest causes reported are coronavirus risks and affordability.

Opportunity: Make a Long-term Investment in Equitable Online Teaching and Learning

Many community colleges have responded quickly to the pandemic by ramping up online learning, as have most four-year colleges and universities. However, as an Aug. 2020 statement by Pranav Sharma, assistant vice president at Moody’s, recognizes, “not all universities … have the resources or culture to move quickly and the coronavirus will expedite existential threats for some.”

As colleges and universities with mostly on-campus classes experience steep enrollment decreases, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that primarily online institutions (POIs) enjoyed fall 2020 enrollment increases of 6.1%. Colleges and universities of all types have taken notice. Data from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, updated on Sept. 9, 2020, shows the following fall 2020 education delivery plans for 2,958 colleges and universities:

    • Fully online: 301 (10%)
    • Primarily online: 1,001 (34%)
    • Hybrid: 622 (21%)
    • Primarily in person: 681 (23%)
    • Fully in person: 114 (4%)
    • To be determined: 86 (3%)
    • Other: 153 (5%)

The coronavirus pandemic clearly drove 65% of colleges and universities nationwide to move online either fully, mostly or partially, but investments in online learning technology, training and implementation, along with uncertainty about the future of the pandemic, will likely ensure that this trend will continue.

Investing in online infrastructure and instructor training will pay off before the pandemic is controlled, but it can also attract international students and working adults without easy access to on-campus programs. These efforts must be grounded in intentionally designed equity frameworks to support disproportionately impacted students of color and first-generation students.

Financial help may be on the way; the Biden administration has pledged to “invest $8 billion to help community colleges improve the health and safety of their facilities, and equip their schools with new technology that will empower their students to succeed in the 21st century.”

Challenge 2: The Rising Cost of College Degrees

Recall from challenge No. 1 that affordability is a key driver of falling first-year community college enrollments. The total cost of attending public undergraduate institutions increased by 31% between 2007 and 2017, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. The average total cost of attending community colleges in the 2018-2019 school year for first-year students living at home was $9,400, compared with $14,600 at public four-year institutions. However, a 2018 report by the California Speaker’s Office of Research and Floor Analysis estimated that 40% of community college students experience “very low food security.” The Biden administration has suggested making public colleges and universities tuition-free for families with incomes below a certain level, but it is not yet clear if and when this policy change might happen.

Opportunity: Increase Strategic Credential Offerings

There is no compelling evidence of the imminent death of traditional degree programs, but there are strong indications that interest in and adoption of credential-based education will grow, driven by lower prices, shorter time to completion and increased learning flexibility. A 2020 TechNavio study titled “Global Alternative Credentials Market for Higher Education 2020-2024” concludes that a widening skills gap between what employers need and the skills that college graduates have will drive a $1.18 billion increase in the higher education credentialing market during the next four years.

The value proposition afforded by non-credit certificates, badges or micro-credentials is clear. In a 2019 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey of 25- to 65-year-olds in 31 OECD countries, including the United States, 80% of respondents “who participated in non-formal education and training” found such programs “very or moderately useful,” compared with the 70% of respondents who participated in formal education and training and gave their programs similar ratings.

Community colleges are positioned well to partner with industry on skills training programs that offer students a lower-cost alternative to an associate’s degree — which leads us to the third major challenge and opportunity facing community colleges and training professionals.

Challenge 3: Skills Gap Persists

A 2020 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that 74% of hiring managers believe that a skills gap exists in the U.S. labor market. Data from the National Skills Coalition shows that 52% of U.S. jobs require specific skills beyond a high school degree but short of a four-year college degree. The skills gap becomes clear in additional data from the National Skills Coalition showing that only 43% of available workers have those skills.

Opportunity: Community College Partnerships With Local Companies

The Corporation for a Skilled Workforce argues that community colleges must engage deeply in industry partnerships relevant to local workforce needs and should also push beyond advisory relationships with local companies to forge multifaceted strategic partnerships with target companies.

This imperative is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, which states that “maintaining or improving education and workforce partnerships is a priority to over half (61%) of respondents’ organizations.” Financial support for such efforts may come from the Biden administration, which has pledged to “make a $50 billion investment in workforce training, including community-college business partnerships and apprenticeships.”

Leveraging Collaboration to Meet Opportunity

The challenges facing community colleges and the impacts of these stresses on industry training are significant — but manageable, through strategic collaboration and agile partnerships. Community colleges and businesses should recognize and demonstrate that they need each other by partnering creatively — with financial support from states and federal government funding — to increase college enrollments, reduce college costs and close industry skill gaps.