Falecia D. Williams is president of Prince George’s Community College.

The current economic recession has been the most inequitable in modern U.S. history. Low-income Americans, women and people of color have been hit especially hard. At the height of the pandemic, low-wage workers were about eight times more likely to have lost their jobs than high-wage earners, and the eventual recovery threatens to be equally uneven without swift and sweeping action.

I have seen this type of scenario play out to various degrees during my long-standing tenure as a higher education leader, currently as president of Prince George’s Community College, a dynamic minority-serving institution that lies at the heart of the economy of Prince George’s County and the surrounding region.

Although there are concentrations of high median income in Prince George’s County, social mobility is limited and fragmented. In comparison with the state, the county is home to a greater percentage of individuals who have neither completed high school nor earned a college degree. Opportunities for economic mobility within this cohort are severely limited for generations to come. The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the fault lines of this divide, and our county has been struck harder than the surrounding regions.

Undoubtedly, education and training need to be part of our path forward. The Biden administration recognizes this reality: Community colleges are essential to opening up opportunities for millions of Americans who are the least advantaged. As the administration looks to direct much-needed resources to our institutions, however, challenges beyond the pandemic threaten our success. Despite the pressing need for workers to retool, community college enrollments were down more than 10 percent this spring semester, even further for students of color.

It’s high time to examine how we operate. We cannot continue to use the same methods and expect different results. Terms such as “cutting-edge” and “innovative” are used to the point they have become meaningless. But is our reality living up to their intended meaning? If not, it is impossible for us to attain the remarkable outcomes we seek.

The pandemic introduced a seismic shift in higher education. I often say we need to deconstruct to reconstruct. We must be inclined to set aside the notion “we’ve always done it this way” to build something truly innovative that acknowledges higher education is not meant to be a silo. It’s part of a larger narrative, touching partners in countless sectors of the business world.

At Prince George’s Community College, we’re deeply involved in collaboration with the national Community College Growth Engine Fund as we build the case and mind-set for micro-pathways — not instead of degrees but as a bridge. Micro-pathways are two or more smaller credentials that add up to a larger credential — something employers validate with a job. They are faster and more flexible to earn than a degree.

For example, we worked with University of Maryland Capital Regional Health and MedStar Health to identify health-care-technician roles and create short-term pathways that connect low-wage and unemployed workers to relevant, in-demand credentials.

In many ways, our work and that of the broader Growth Engine Fund provides a framework for how community colleges can recast high-quality credentials to deliver on the promise of economic mobility — with one prerequisite. Community colleges and employers need to be co-creators of the micro-pathways. To build successful employer-community college relationships, which are the core of micro-pathways, we must adopt an employer engagement mind-set in which both parties are open to adjusting their current practices and establishing new ones together.

Without this reciprocal relationship, we end up with too many credentials that don’t lead to available, high-wage jobs and not enough that address ongoing skills shortages and emerging careers. Over the years, community colleges have responded to changing regional economic demands by building new programs and credentials. Yet we struggle to measure their actual impact — not in graduates but in career and economic mobility. All told, postsecondary institutions now offer more than 370,000 credentials with often vague ways for students to distinguish which ones lead to new employment opportunities.

Our Growth Engine Fund collaboration is an integral part of our strategy to leverage skills data and insights to create defined, stackable credentials that align student needs with workforce demands. In many ways, we are thinking smaller, not bigger. Counterintuitively, colleges can make the biggest gains by focusing on incremental wins, guided by a larger vision. This approach is critical to enhancing the economic standing of our students and communities.

As the administration continues to advocate for high-level education reform, we must do our part on the ground to ensure these resources open up true opportunities for our students who need them the most. Short-term credentials that provide direct, accelerated pathways to economic mobility are nonnegotiable. The viability of our country simply cannot afford credentials to nowhere.

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