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How one Ohio community college looked local and shifted its focus

A college campus sign reads "Lorain Community College". In the background, tall buildings with glass windows sit among green trees.
Courtesy of Lorain Community College
Lorain Community College is being lauded an example of how community colleges should drive their local economies.

Lorain Community College, just outside of Cleveland, was founded – in part – to help fill the manufacturing workforce in northeast Ohio.

But, as the steel industry declined, the manufacturing jobs it was training students for became limited. President Marcia Ballinger said the school didn’t panic. It pivoted. The community college’s course offerings shifted from automotive parts to circuit boards.

“The needs of both our residents and our employers changed dramatically,” Ballinger said. “One of the things that Lorain County Community College has always prided itself on is listening and learning from our community.”

The community college’s microelectronic manufacturing (MEMS) program was developed almost a decade before Intel’s announcement to build a semiconductor factory in Central Ohio and long before the idea of Ohio as the “Silicon Heartland” had become a talking point.

Bob Schwartz said it’s an example of how community colleges should evolve with, and build on, their local economies. The Harvard professor emeritus is the co-editor of the new book “America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity,” which featured Lorain Community College as one of five innovative institutions across the country.

Community listening

Ballinger and other Lorain Community College leaders didn’t have a crystal ball to predict Intel’s arrival or the CHIPS bill, a federal investment in semiconductor manufacturing. Rather, the community college relied on collaborating with local employers in building its curriculum. It formed a task force of 80 employers to understand what the community of Lorain needed.

By listening to regional employers, they were able to develop advanced manufacturing curriculum well before other Ohio institutions.

“They clearly saw that and they were hearing even from their own small employers, that this is a growing field, and there's a big demand,” Schwartz said.

Many community colleges and four-year institutions have since started coursework in collaboration with Intel ahead of the company’s expansion in the state. But, Schwartz said Lorain has the advantage of scaling up an already robust program instead of starting from scratch.

And, Schwartz said they’ve become a key economic player by helping to revive the region’s manufacturing roots.

“The sector is coming back to a region where it had been decimated two decades ago,” he said.

Hidden economic engines

The role of community colleges is often underestimated – especially when it comes to their ability to shape and build on the local economy, Schwartz said. They are flexible and willing to adapt, in a way that many four-year institutions often aren’t.

“Community colleges are, at their best, really the most nimble market-oriented entrepreneurial institutions that we have in our post-secondary system,” he said. “They have to be to survive.”

One woman sits in front of a computer wearing safety goggles as she works on a project. A male student stands behind her, watching her work.
Lorain Community College Facebook
Lorain already had a Micro Electromechanical Systems degree a decade before it became a burgeoning industry in Ohio.

Schwartz said Lorain exemplifies this, not only by working with local employers, but by designing their program with their students’ economic advancement in mind. President Ballinger said that’s because they recognize their students’ success is linked to their community growth.

“For us, it is about creating that more vibrant economy and community for all, moving individuals up that socioeconomic ladder to ensure that, that they have family sustaining wages, and that they're all contributing to that greater economy,” she said.

Enrollment decline

Community college enrollment is declining. In the last decade, Ohio’s community colleges have seen a 12% drop.

But, Schwartz said not all hope is lost. Community colleges are seeing increasing enrollment from high school students. At Lorain, nearly a third of the students are dually enrolled. Schwartz said institutions should expand opportunities for that student population.

Plus, he said recent polling has shown a growing disaffection for four-year universities.

“People are starting to question: Are the returns to four-year college worth it?” he said.

He said it’s promising that more companies, like IBM, are moving away from their reliance on four-year degrees. If this skills-based hiring continues to grow, Schwartz said community colleges – and the students they serve – will grow with it.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.