Tim Cook discusses the future of education at Oregon City business forum
Declining birth rates, an aging and diversifying student population and a changing needs of employers are just a few of the challenges facing Clackamas Community College.
That’s according to Tim Cook who informed attendees at the Oregon City Business Alliance’s monthly forum in September.
The COVID pandemic gave administrators at the College time to think about where CCC is headed for the next ten years and beyond.
Cook arranged his talk into three “buckets” — a changing student population, a changing workforce and workplace needs, and how the college is adapting to meet those changes.
“Birth rates have been declining since the 80’s,” Cook said, “so this was happening pre-pandemic. What we’re seeing now, if you talk to anybody at the public universities or the community colleges, there are just fewer and fewer students that are that traditional age coming through.”
Adults over 30. That’s the population increasing and expected to increase over the next 15 to 20 years. That also happens to be the age of CCC’s primary student population, which means opportunity for CCC and other Community Colleges with similar student profiles.
Unfortunately, according to Cook, “Oregon really does not have what we call a college going culture.”
“That’s something that we don’t necessarily emphasize in this state,” he said, “to the extent that we set up systems or we set up funding mechanisms or we find other ways for students to be able to easily go.”
Some of those roadblocks to education include educational programs that don’t meet the needs of students or employers, a lack of time or money, or insecurity in housing, food access or access to childcare.
“I see this as another opportunity for us to really think about how we can work together as businesses, as legislators, as educators to really increase that college going culture that we need,” Cook said.
Clackamas Community College is also experiencing an increase in the diversity of their student make-up.
“At Clackamas, about 33% of our students are BIPOC,” Cook said, “We’re seeing the biggest growth by far in our Latin X community, then people that identify as having more than one race.”
Whether that means the college needs to offer more programs in Spanish, as was recently done with one program by CCC’s Small Business Development Center, or recognizing Juneteenth as a campus holiday as was done this year – the college is making efforts to include everyone.
“The college is growing at a faster rate with diversity,” Cook said, “so that’s something that we’re attending to and really trying to figure out how we can adapt and make sure that we’re serving a more and more diverse population here at the college and in the county.”
The pandemic took students out of classrooms and into Zoom meetings and the world of online learning, many don’t want to go back.
“We built our schedules about six months ahead of time,” Cook said, “Last May, we put out our Fall schedule, which we started yesterday. Students voted with their feet, by a two to one ratio, they wanted online classes. So all of these face to face classes we’ve been putting together and trying to run have no students, or have a handful of students. We can’t afford that.”
What does a college do with buildings they no longer need for classes that no longer meet – they rethink the whole idea of education.
Cook’s vision for the future scraps the old students-in-desks model and looks for new ways to provide students the tools and support they need to grow as individuals and achieve in life.
“Pre-pandemic we had this pretty traditional one year credential / two year degree that you would see in most places,” Cook said, “and we’re hearing over and over again – a year’s too long, we can’t wait, we need CNC operators, we need people now, we need them yesterday.”
Employers across all sectors are hurting for employees but employers can’t wait if they need an employee, “we hear this all the time – can you help us find people now and can we do some training that gets people ready to go much quicker,” Cook said.
On-Demand learning, micro-credentials, on-site training, flex and hybrid classrooms and re-thinking the purpose of a college campus. These are just some of the ways the college is trying to adapt to the current and future needs of students and the community.
“We’re much more prepared now,” Cook said, “where we’re actually doing a better job of getting ready for what’s coming we’re almost half and half credit and non-credit options that we offer at the college.”
Non-credit courses might look like a local business that needs to offer training at night or on the weekends and wants to use campus facilities, or wants CCC instructors to train their employees on-site for a number of weeks. It could be someone looking to add a skill to their resume or a retiree who wants to learn about organic farming.
On-Demand learning would allow students, or interested community members, to engage in learning on their own schedule, much like many commercially available options such as Domestika, Udemy or MasterClass.
Any of the class formats could be used to provide students a micro-credential, or a certification on a single type of machine or in a particular procedure, that would allow them to get a job or move up in their current position.
“You’ll see, I would predict as we move forward, that we may get to a point in the not-so-distant future where we’re offering more non-credit than we are credit classes,” Cook said.
Beyond non-credit options for students, classroom options are changing as well.
Class used to mean students sitting in a room together in that old European model that Cook mentioned.
Today we use words like online learning, hybrid classroom, flex classroom, synchronous and asynchronous learning, virtual reality and simulation..
Hybrid instruction is perhaps closest to that old model; part time in class, part time online.
Online learning can be either synchronous, with all students meeting at the same time for the same class or asynchronous, with students accessing course materials on their own schedule.
Flex learning is perhaps the most interesting concept. Classes run on a schedule. Students can attend class in person or online. Or they can watch the class later at their leisure.
What sets Flex classrooms apart is options – greater student control over their learning process.
Virtual reality and simulation programs are in the pipeline for the future with some programs already being rolled out in other locations.
Cook was near gushing over the college’s new Maker’s Space.
“Our programs use those spaces all the time for training and for work but then on the weekends we’re turning those into a community space and so people can come, they can get trained, they can come use these. So whether you’re a hobbyist and you want to make something or you’ve got an idea for a small business and you want to prototype a product, this space is available. It’s a great way for people to get up-skilled to use new technology where maybe they didn’t have that opportunity before.”
Beyond the students, beyond the class offerings, there is the campus.
“We spent the last six months working on a campus mass concept master plan, with the goal of really examining all of our facilities, all of our instruction, looking at the next 10 years,” Cook said.
Online courses are fundamentally lonely.
“Students need opportunities to get together and connect. So they might have liked online because it was more convenient. But they really missed being together and opportunities to be together,” Cook said.
Convenience, connections, caring and community. These are the watchwords of the new campus model.
“If I’m having my classes online, or some of them online, are there places on campus I can pop in and do that? Are there other reasons for me to come here and be engaged that way? Or can we do these outside” Cook said.
“Students and staff have said we need more of these spaces where we can just pop in and can get this done,” Cook said, speaking of the new collaborative spaces, small one and two person rooms, available on campus for student use.
People are often surprised by the basic-needs challenges many CCC students experience while trying to earn a degree, according to Cook.
In a pre-pandemic survey of CCC students, done in 2019, almost 60% of students had experienced basic needs insecurity.
That means they weren’t sure how they were going to eat, pay a bill or have a place to sleep.
“Almost half experienced housing insecurity in the past year,” Cook said, “that doesn’t necessarily mean homelessness, it means that they, for a time, might have had to miss a rent payment, might have had to do some couch surfing or had to figure out some way to live that wasn’t secure in their own housing.”
Twenty percent of CCC students experienced homelessness in the last year.
“It’ll be interesting when we do this again this year to see how this has changed,” he said, “I’m betting that this probably hasn’t gotten better.”
“This is provocative,” Cook said, “so I’m saying it wherever I can, we’re looking at affordable housing.”
“We’re really trying to figure out – how do we help be part of the solution with some of the housing issues and the affordable housing issues. This isn’t new, PCC is doing it right now. Columbia Gorge just opened one. Some of the other rural community colleges have been doing this for a while. And so we’re exploring that pretty seriously.”
“Childcare remains, again, one of the biggest, biggest barriers for our students being able to, you know, to come and go to school, affordable childcare. So we’ve had a childcare program, a training program for years. We just this last year started offering it entirely in Spanish,” Cook said.
“Primarily what the issue is, the sort of secondary issues around childcare, and some other barriers that are keeping students from coming in. But this is another area that we’re really trying to think about what size we need to be because it also helps us inform what types of facilities and buildings that we’re needing as we move forward,” Cook said.
People often ask Cook if the brick and mortar campus is going away, if there will be a need for these buildings.
“I would argue that we’re always going to be here, and we’re always going to have a place in this community,” Cook said.
“Some of you were running on campus this weekend for volunteers in medicine,” Cook said, “I run every weekend on campus. People are walking their dogs, people are connecting. It’s a place where people come together, and we pride ourselves on being a welcoming place.”
“I say it every presentation,” Cook said, “community’s our middle name. We take this really seriously. Being involved with all of you, with our community, is really important to us as we do this work.”