The Impact and Opportunity of Community College Digital Transformation

By Stacy Holliday, associate director, JFF

Community colleges are cornerstones of America: they power regional economies, fuel talent pipelines, and position millions of learners for equitable economic mobility.

Yet today, due to challenges such as declining enrollment and retention and increased staff turnover, colleges’ physical and technological infrastructure often no longer fully meets student, faculty, and staff needs.

COVID-19 deepened these challenges, accelerating a transition to virtual modes of work and learning and too often exacerbating historical inequities. But the pandemic has also presented community colleges with an opportunity.

All across the country, community colleges are implementing technology solutions at scale to address these challenges, serving students in a way that’s more fully aligned with this new moment. Simply put, they’re embracing digital transformation.

Digital transformation means far more than implementing new technology. At its best, it offers human-centered cultural transformation of college operations, unlocking opportunities to better serve students, drive impact, and compete in the ever-growing postsecondary marketplace.

Digital Transformation and Community Colleges: Human-Centered Benefits

Digital transformation is revolutionizing the community college experience for millions of students and enhancing operations at thousands of colleges across the country. At JFF, we’re building on decades of work leading innovation in the community college ecosystem — as well as our expertise in implementing high-impact technology to help people connect to work and learning — to support colleges as they realize this potential.

Some community colleges have centered their transformation on Salesforce.org Education Cloud, the social impact center of Salesforce that’s focused on “bringing leading-edge technology to educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.” This integrated platform, which spans solutions for enrollment management, student experience, workforce and donor engagement, and institution operations, helps drive learner and institution success by giving community colleges a comprehensive window into students’ entire educational journey.

At JFF, we’ve been impressed by how colleges use Education Cloud to strengthen student relationships while reducing costs. We’re teaming up with Salesforce.org to explore ways in which community colleges benefit from Education Cloud. Writ large, new technology offers a wide range of human-centered benefits for learners and institutions alike.

Enabling Equity-Minded Strategy and Equity-Driven Outcomes

Through digital transformation, community colleges strengthen their ability to serve learners from historically excluded groups and to offer more personalized services. By doing so, they gain a more comprehensive perspective on learners’ experiences, developing a richer understanding of who they are and how to best support them. Technology helps colleges design equitable, holistic supports by providing real-time analytics that enable timely intervention. These supports increase student retention and credential completion.

According to Daman Grewal, chief technology officer at San Mateo County Community College District (SMCCCD) in California, counselors with access to Education Cloud “can really see student journeys, the progress they are making on their campuses, and where they need help.” When students are missing classes or struggling with coursework, staff receive alerts and take immediate action. Digital transformation also helps community colleges serve students who have traditionally faced barriers to access by making processes virtual, such as class registration. This helps colleges ensure that students have the support they need to flourish, such as software, hardware, Wi-Fi access, and even food. Students receive automated alerts about upcoming milestones that help them stay on track.

Engaging Learners and Developing a Sense of Belonging

Colleges can also use technology to reach, enroll, engage, and support learners more efficiently and effectively, resulting in increased student success. At their convenience, students can easily access resources customized to their needs via a platform that is personalized based on cohort or enrollment status characteristics.

Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College (RCC) in New York, told us: “At 3 o’clock in the morning, if students have a question or an urgent need for support, there is someone who can answer their call.” RCC engaged students in the design of its digital transformation, through focus groups, student participation in committees, and a dedicated, cross-disciplinary team of students, which Baston says “provided extraordinary feedback.”

Before the pandemic, most learners met and connected with peers who were in their classes on the physical campus. Now, innovation in social media and messaging platforms enables novel strategies for creating learning communities.

Matt Etchison, chief information officer at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, notes: “Most people are comfortable using the internet, smartphones, and other technology for routine daily tasks. We have to get to a point where all of higher education, and specifically all community colleges [offer] just that seamless of an experience.”

Today, colleges can use innovative technology to support authentic communities and a deep sense of belonging for learners, whether they are on campus or attending classes virtually — what Etchison refers to as a “consumer-grade digital experience.” Salesforce.org has adopted this approach in the design of its Education Cloud suite of tools to facilitate learner engagement and speedy communication with students’ support networks.

Innovative Instruction: Adaptive and Learner-Centered

Though institutions have always sought to provide ongoing professional development for faculty, COVID-19 accelerated the need to improve instruction to better serve remote learners. Digital transformation enables instructors to gain more refined insights about learners and better serve them through new, tech-enabled pedagogy and support fostering deeper engagement.

The pandemic necessitated new student-centered services such as virtual tutoring, increased availability of online courses, and 24/7 help desks, that colleges have committed to retaining post-pandemic. As community colleges adopt technology such as learning management systems and accessibility tools, they find it essential to provide initial and ongoing support to staff and faculty.

New hires and adjunct faculty particularly benefit from such support, says Dori Lloyd, dean of teaching, learning, and global engagement at Davidson-Davie Community College in North Carolina. She emphasizes that these faculty members need to immediately know what people and resources are available to help with course design and online teaching tips. Adjunct faculty also feel more connected and engaged when they can access modules on demand at convenient times for their diverse schedules.

Career Navigation and Industry Connections

Digital transformation has expanded community college capacity to support learners as they explore, prepare for, and successfully transition into careers. These tools help colleges offer virtual advising, provide learners with richer employment data, and inform them about opportunities for new skill development and career exploration.

At Mohawk Valley Community College in New York, Franca Armstrong, associate vice president of workforce development, uses the social network and jobs platform Skillmill for career connections and advancement, and companies that offer augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) for virtual skill development.

Similarly, at Isothermal Community College in North Carolina, President Margaret Annunziata says her team helps students use technology that enhances “the development of skills and competencies that ultimately are going to propel them forward in their futures.” AR/VR tools are especially helpful during the pandemic, when safety restrictions have reduced opportunities to gain clinical or other practical experience in work settings. Annunziata emphasizes how digital transformation enables Isothermal to strengthen its commitment to “delivering the promise of education and skill development in this new environment. We’ve got to set the example for our students with digital transformation so they’re ready for the workforce.”

Strengthening Partnerships and Fostering Institutional Adaptability

Digital transformation holds the potential to help community colleges build institutional resilience and capacity. One clear benefit, as noted by RCC’s Baston, is the automation of manual tasks, which he says provides the time and “the freedom to focus on the future state that we want for our students, for our community, for our college, for our educational system.”

If the administrative burden of manual processes can be reduced, staff can focus on strategy, such as trends informing program development and enhancement. Another example: labor market analysis tools enabling real-time insights that can guide colleges to partnerships within their local ecosystem. As Baston explains, “Digital tools turn data into actionable intelligence.”

Salesforce.org Education Cloud: Case Studies in High-Impact Digital Transformation

Ivy Tech Community College

Education Cloud has helped Ivy Tech optimize student enrollment, retention, and degree completion. It has given the college a 360-degree view of its students, saving staff time and freeing them to spend more time directly supporting students. Ivy Tech has increased transparent access to student data, eliminating data silos and enabling internal systems to scale and evolve as necessary.

According to CIO Etchison, Ivy Tech now has data analytics “around every step of the student experience” and can see “where we can intervene and help them get to their next place.” Etchison adds that “we can see hour by hour what’s going on at the college, what our enrollment numbers and retention numbers are.”

Education Cloud has moved critical functions such as class registration online, making it more convenient for all students to do at home what they used to come onto campus for and saving them time, energy, and money. “Our students have busy lives. They might have two jobs, children they’re taking care of, a lot going on,” Etchison says. “We can’t burden them with legacy systems and things that are too complicated to figure out.” He identifies digital transformation as a means of achieving more equitable outcomes: “We have to make sure everyone has equal access and equal opportunity.”

San Mateo County Community College District

SMCCCD’s Grewal saw digital transformation as an opportunity “to reinvent, to fix what was broken, and implement strategies that provided students with the best possible experience.” To gain visibility into the student experience and streamline processes for students and staff, SMCCCD turned to Education Cloud. The platform makes it possible to track the student journey from initial interest to enrollment, registration, and graduation, even aiding alumni relations.

As one example, staff at SMCCCD get alerts when students are struggling and need extra support. According to Grewal, Education Cloud has made it easier for SMCCCD staff and faculty to efficiently and effectively serve students, resulting in increased student engagement and overall student success.

Together We Can Do This

To benefit learners, communities, and society, we are excited to help community colleges realize the full possibility and promise of innovative new technology in achieving equitable outcomes for the students and communities they serve.

This work must be grounded in four core values: it must be rooted in empathy, strive to achieve equity, be learning-centered, and be custom-designed to meet the specific needs of individual community colleges.

Empathy-Rooted

Listening to and understanding the needs of all community college constituents gives us a better sense of stakeholders’ vision and goals, what’s happening in practice, and the measures of success that matter both to them and to the constituents they serve. Isothermal’s Annunziata reflects on her previous experience hearing from technology vendors. They were, she says, “so happy to tell us how they’re going to solve all of our problems, and the funny thing is they never bother to ask what our problems are before they start telling us how they’re going to solve them.”

We encourage digital transformation projects to begin with a process of exploration so that we are clear on what the institutions we’re serving are hoping to accomplish — and how we can get there together, building trust and a shared vision along the way.

Equity-Driven

Eliminating or preventing the exacerbation of inequities requires deliberate, mindful attention and effort. Digital transformation at community colleges must enable economic mobility for learners and workers from underrepresented groups, including Black and Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Implementation projects should always center the perspectives and voices of those we serve, designing alongside them in partnership.

Learning-Centered

Community colleges continue to do more with less, and they often feel that time spent seeking out opportunities to learn from other colleges and stakeholders is time stolen from their students. This process of collaborative learning and growth needs to be both efficient and high-impact. JFF provides opportunities for institutions undergoing similar technology implementation projects to share successes, challenges, and lessons learned with one another through information exchange and communities of practice.

Custom-Designed

Each community college’s history, regional context, aspirations, and culture shape how it understands and experiences its challenges, evaluates potential solutions, invests, and starts its work. We work to ensure that stakeholders have access to both the right technology for the specific impact they’re striving to make and the right support to implement that technology properly and effectively. Susan Burleson, the executive vice president of academics and student affairs at Davidson-Davie Community College, encourages others undertaking digital transformation: “While it may feel like you are doing tons of work on the front end, you know ultimately the result is that you’ll be a much more efficient and effective organization,” Burleson says.

Share Your Story

Are you a community college leader interested in how technology can help you accelerate student and institutional success? We want to hear from you! Email us at labs@jff.org to share your experience with digital transformation at your community college and how you’re diving into what’s possible for students and your community.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org