By Mary Huber, Statesman
Enrollment at Austin Community College has remained flat in recent years, but more students are flooding degree programs that will help fill key workforce gaps, according to a new report by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the college.
In recent years, the college has pushed to guide students onto career paths that meet local workforce demands, including the fast-growing fields of health sciences, information technology, advanced manufacturing and skilled labor. From 2014 to 2018, enrollment in building construction technology, architectural and engineering aided design, computer information technology and nursing all had double digit increases, proof the college’s efforts are working, ACC President Richard Rhodes said.
“That’s really our job to be responsive to the business community in Central Texas and what their needs are, and their needs are in those four different areas,” Rhodes said. “We are trying to take people through middle-skill job careers. We are trying to get them to more than a living wage.”
The report, being released at a chamber breakfast Wednesday, found that, overall, the number of workforce credentials earned by ACC graduates increased 52% between 2014 and 2018. Credentials in health sciences increased 12%; design, manufacturing, construction and applied technology 42%; and IT and computer science 11%.
More Hispanic students also enrolled at ACC, and dual-credit enrollments, where students take both high school and college courses, were up 60% over the four-year period, according to the report.
Moreover, students who graduate with degrees from ACC earn, on average, $10,800 more each year than those with only a high school diploma in Texas, it said.
The biennial report, which is the fifth of its kind, is done by the chamber and the college to gauge how successful ACC is at meeting workforce needs and getting people into high-paying jobs.
Drew Scheberle, chamber vice president of talent education, said this is especially important in a dynamic economy like Austin’s, which has had full employment since 2015. As a result, it can be difficult to keep people enrolled in school and completing degree programs. But with the increasing digitization of jobs, growth in both the advanced manufacturing and finance sectors and the rollout of Austin’s new Army Futures Command, it is even more critical to develop a skilled workforce, he said.
“There are massive changes happening below the surface,” Scheberle said. “I think community colleges for many years were reactive to students’ choices, and now ACC is proactively with business recruiting people into areas where they can earn higher wages.”
In 2018, ACC unveiled its four-year bachelor degree program in nursing. According to the chamber report, as many as 1 in every 4 new jobs in Austin in the next decade will be in the health care industry — the result of an aging population in which many health care workers are entering their retirement years and Baby Boomers are requiring more health care services.
Rhodes said the new bachelor degree program will help alleviate a critical nursing shortage in Austin. The expanded ACC Highland Campus, set to open next year, will have a health sciences simulation lab, which will allow nursing students to complete clinical hours outside the hospital. Rhodes said it is difficult to expand nursing programs because Austin hospitals don’t have enough space for clinical students.
The Highland Campus also will have an advanced manufacturing and robotics center. ACC plans to add two other bachelor degree programs, one in computer information technology, expected in the spring of 2020, and another in advanced manufacturing and engineering technology, to meet those key workforce needs.
The college also announced Wednesday a partnership with IBM to develop 350 IT apprenticeships, so students can earn money while going back to school. The program was paid for with a $12 million U.S. Labor Department grant given to three Texas community colleges to train people for higher skill jobs.
“We can’t expect to deliver services and programs the way we have in the past and expect to meet the needs of business and industry,” Rhodes said. “Innovation is critical.”
Despite these efforts, ACC’s three-year graduation rate for full-time, first-time-in-college students is 7.2%, well below the 23.3% average for community colleges in Texas, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
To improve these numbers, the college is working to keep students on a specific career track so they take only classes that count toward their finished degree or are easily transferred to a four-year college. The plan, called Guided Pathways, includes math courses tailored to what would be required in that field.
“We want to make sure that the students that come to us, even if they can’t stay and graduate with us, that every course they take that we give them the right advising and guidance that all of that coursework is going to transfer and apply to the degree of whatever institution they intend to transfer to,” Rhodes said.
ACC officials said the latest report doesn’t show the results of that effort, and the next few years will give a better sense of whether Guided Pathways leads to higher graduation rates.