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  • A Matter of Degrees: Higher Education Industry Overview

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    The River Region’s colleges and universities provide benefits that rise far above the individual students they’re educating.

    Pursuing additional education after high school has been proven to elevate the employability and earning potential of individuals. But higher education doesn’t only uplift its students; the colleges and universities that provide this instruction and training boost their local and regional economies as well. And the positives don’t stop there.

    Numerous studies conducted show people who continue their education achieve greater incomes, and not just right out of school, but long-term; lifetime earnings of those with some post-secondary education are almost nine times higher than those with only a high school diploma. They’re more likely to own a home and less likely to ever need or receive government assistance.

    Good of a Degree
    But the benefits extend beyond the individual, as Dr. Jim Purcell of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, explained. “Montgomery has a good range of higher ed ops, two- and four-year, some open door, some more selective. They’re all valuable to the community,” he said. “For one, the students coming in and living on Montgomery’s residential campuses have a financial footprint similar to tourists, but unlike being here for a few days, they’re here for around nine months.”

    In academic year 2020, there were approximately 21,000 students here, buying food, gas and other services. And they’re not just consuming; they’re contributing too. “Student workers are great to have in our service industries,” Purcell said. When they graduate, some of them stay here and enrich the community further. “We’ve done a study, and out of college students statewide in Alabama, we keep about one in five here,” Purcell said. “That has a big and positive impact.”

    Also during the 2020 academic year, River Region colleges and universities employed 2,293 people, a key point in the positive effect the higher ed industry has in the area. But Purcell stressed that nailing down the other information related to higher ed’s overall economic impact can be difficult. “When you ask about the economic impact studies for local institutions, I would be cautious about such calculations, as researchers tend to use different methods, utilize different data points and tend to not have extensive knowledge of all the factors that are needed to create an accurate valuation,” he said.

    Instead, he pointed to a metric more easily measured: the impact an educated workforce has on a community. A 2013 Milken Institute study showed a “strong correlation” between education and per capita GDP as well as increased real wages. The study looked at 261 metro areas in the United States and found a 17.4 percent increase in GDP and a 17.8 percent bump up in wages when the education level for a community’s citizenry was increased by one year of postsecondary education. According to Purcell, we can see this principle play out in our state. “Real wages and GDP have risen in several Alabama communities, including Montgomery, with only modest increases in the education level of their residents,” he said. Civic involvement goes up, too; almost 50 percent of those with a B.A. or higher give back with multiple volunteer hours annually. There’s even a connection between higher education and safer driving habits. On the flipside, poverty and incarceration rates go down. All these facts are obviously good for individuals but also good for a community.

    And Purcell stressed that in the coming years, a more educated citizenry will be essential. “Two recent books shed a lot of light on what communities need to have or develop to prosper in the modern economy,” he says. These sources state that density of educated/skilled workers, alignment of skills to jobs and access to good schools, colleges and universities are the factors ranking at the top of the list. Purcell noted communities that achieve these points will lead the way forward. “They have the potential of becoming the engines that drive a state’s economy,” he said. Conversely, those that don’t could slide into decline. “Some economists argue that economies with more than 50 percent of their households supported by government resources are not sustainable in the long run,” he said.

    He singled out one of the characteristics for success in the future: alignment of skills to jobs. And thanks to automation technologies, many of the jobs now on deck and soon to dominate the workplace don’t look like yesterday’s jobs. “Automation is reshaping things,” he said. “Some occupations will shrink, and others will grow, and the tasks and time allocation associated with every job will be subject to change,” he said. That leaves communities with a challenge. “We’ve got to equip people with the skills that will serve them well and help them move into new roles,” he said. “Local community colleges and universities will play important roles in re-tooling our existing workforce for the modern economy.”

    Grade A Workforce
    In the River Region, our higher ed institutions are playing this part well, building and strengthening our local workforce in a variety of sectors. AUM, the largest university in the capital city has students from 36 states and 33 different countries, yet the majority are from Montgomery, Autauga and Elmore counties. “Many of our graduates will find employment in the River Region after graduation, working within such sectors as state government, allied healthcare, K-12 education and a variety of business and non-profit settings,” said AUM Chancellor Dr. Carl A. Stockton. “And many will apply their knowledge and skills in an entrepreneurial fashion, launching their own businesses.” AUM also allows area residents already established in their careers to access professional development and graduate programs right here at home.

    According to Dr. Kemba Chambers, President of Trenholm State Community College, our area’s current workforce efforts are in a “good place.” “Trenholm State is constantly monitoring the existing needs of businesses and industry and adapting our programming specifically to reach demands,” she said. But, she and her team recognize that there is more that can be done. Trenholm recently formed its Office of Workforce and Community Development with the goal of better linking the college with governmental agencies, businesses and organizations focused on creating vibrant and sustainable communities. It examines workforce data and gathers input and feedback from the business community so Trenholm can respond directly to the specific—and oftchanging—needs of local companies with relevant courses and curricula. “In conjunction with external stakeholders, our Office of Workforce Development centers on effectively delivering customized training solutions tailored to the needs of our business and industry partners,” Chambers said.

    Examples include Trenholm’s Lineworker Training Program conducted in conjunction with the Alabama Power Company and Alabama Rural Electric Association and its River Region Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) program launched in coordination with six local manufacturing companies. “This program, as well as our Hyundai Maintenance Apprenticeship Program, allows students to gain valuable employment experience with manufacturing leaders while completing their associate degrees,” Chambers said. “Furthermore, the college offers credit and non-credit instructional programs such as medication assistant, electrician’s assistance and certified nursing assistant because of the needs that exist in the community.”

    Troy University is implementing initiatives to better meet the needs of today’s students, who can then meet the labor needs of our businesses and industries. Its Flex classes combine the features of online and in-class experiences. “In the Flex format, classes meet in person on a regular schedule, and each class session is also streamed live online,” said Lauren Cole, Director of Career Services.

    “In addition, the class sessions are archived for on-demand viewing at a later time. Students are free to switch between formats as their needs dictate, and all classwork is completed online.” And this fall, Troy University’s Montgomery Campus is adding nighttime classes to its associate in nursing degree program to help it fill the demand for nurses in the River Region.

    Pushing Past Patterns
    While the students at River Region colleges and universities are obvious assets, we have to get them here first, and for some, higher education is still out of reach.

    AUM, ASU and others are building the atmosphere and infrastructure necessary to assist first generation and at-risk students in applying to, paying for and staying in school. “AUM has positioned itself as a first choice for first-generation students. Many of our faculty and administrators were the first from their respective families to attend and graduate from college, and that has helped our institution anticipate and meet the needs of this student population,” said Stockton. The first hurdle is financial, and AUM is lessening this burden, with about 98 percent of its fall 2021 freshmen receiving some type of scholarship assistance. The next challenge is often more abstract and requires a nurturing atmosphere.

    “According to Pew Research Center, of the adults whose parents have both finished college, 82 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. Contrast that with adults whose parents have no college experience of any kind. Nationally, about 20 percent of those individuals complete a bachelor’s degree,” said Stockton.

    To combat this, AUM has also created support systems to help with acclimation and to encourage students once they’re on campus. “This includes small class sizes (16:1 student-to-faculty ratio) and specific programs that address different needs, like our ‘First Generation Warhawk’ program, which includes faculty, staff and students who were the first in their households to attend college.”

    Faulkner puts emphasis on de-mystifying the application process. “Our Student Services team is here to help students overcome obstacles. Even before students step on campus, our admissions team is here working one-on-one with every student to ensure needed resources are available for success. Our counselors are eager to answer questions and provide a step-by-step process for enrollment,” said Faulkner University President Mitch Henry.

    Dr. Ronda Westry, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Student Success Units at ASU described the university programs designed to assist underprepared college students.

    “The most prominent are the Summer Bridge Traditional and Summer Bridge P.L.U.S. (Promoting Learning and Upgrading Skills). Both programs are intensive six-week residential college readiness programs for students who have been admitted to ASU,” she said. Another ASU initiative for first-generation students is ASU’s TRiO Student Support Services program that provides academic support and financial opportunities to minimize attrition among first-generation students with economic challenges.

    Head in the Cloud
    Trenholm State is playing an integral part in the continued effort to bolster Montgomery’s burgeoning tech ecosystem with its Amazon Web Service (AWS) Cloud Computing. It began the program in the fall of 2021 and is currently the only community college in the state offering the courses, which allow its students to pursue an Associate in Applied Science or a Short-Term Certificate. “Courses in the AWS curriculum prepare students to earn certifications as an AWS Cloud Practitioner, Certified Developer, Solutions Architect Associate and Certified SysOps Administrator,” said Trenholm President Dr. Kemba Chambers. And the Chamber is providing key assistance. “During National Computer Science Week last December, The Lab on Dexter hosted a community informational event that highlighted the AWS program,” Chambers said. “The college appreciates the continued support of Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM, and her team and looks forward to strengthening this partnership.”

    Later Learners - How Continuing Education Looks Different
    Through their continuing education departments, local higher ed institutions offer a lot to those already knee-deep in their careers or older adults looking to jump into something new. But professional development and training is changing, as Laura Chambliss, Director of Troy University’s Continuing Education and Outreach, explained. “We are seeing individuals expecting their organization or business to provide continuing education,” she said. In fact, 87 percent of the younger generation names training a top priority in their job search. To stay in line with this shift, Troy is working directly with the HR departments of many area companies, state agencies and nonprofits, while still offering con-ed classes for individuals. “We go into these organizations and teach courses and create training programs, specifically for their employees,” Chambliss said. She also pointed to an increased demand for training in communication skills, interpersonal skills, listening skills and time management. 87 % of the younger generation names training a top priority in their job search.

    Intangible Impacts

    Our higher ed industry’s workforce programs carry significant worth, and we can also add up the dollars they pump into our local economy. But the students and faculty also pay into our culture by bringing an array of different experiences and perspectives to our region.

    AUM has more than 400 international students from 33 countries, including India, South Korea, Vietnam, China and Brazil.

    “The diversity of our student body and employees is reflective of the community we serve, and that is intentional,” said Dr. Carl A. Stockton, AUM Chancellor. According to him, this diversity brings multifaceted perks. “As a university, we understand that our diversity improves collaboration, creativity and empathy among students and employees.” he said. “Companies are placing increasing importance on diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to identifying, hiring and training employees; engaging customers and other stakeholders; and expressing corporate social responsibility.”

    Faulkner also boasts a diverse student population, with students from 36 states and 35 countries enrolled this year and a minority student population at 49 percent.

    The university recently received two grants to strengthen academic support and success for minority students. “Diverse students who settle and work in this area strengthen our community,” said Faulkner University President Mitch Henry. He echoed Stockton on the advantageous effects this can have off campus. “Diversity in education is a crucial component of the learning process. Interacting and working alongside those who differ from ourselves allows students to consider perspectives and opinions that vary from the ones we’ve already formed,” he said.

    ASU students represent 41 states and 20 foreign countries, and 43 percent of its students come from out of state. “As the University attracts students from other locations, the city and the River Region are exposed to different cultures and ideals,” said Lois G. Russell, ASU’s Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Communications.

    Service Matters
    Many college students in the River Region are solving problems and tackling issues in our community by volunteering their time and talents to a variety of philanthropic efforts.

    Lois G. Russell, ASU’s Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Communications stressed that a large number of ASU students become involved in the community through campus programs. “They patronize and work at local establishments, volunteer at public events, serve as interns for local businesses and agencies, and in many other ways make contributions to the local economy, workforce and well-being of the area,” she said. “The President’s CommUniversity initiative provides campus volunteers and assistance with event coordination.”

    Faulkner puts a high priority on service, and in one visible example, students, faculty and staff operate a free speech-language pathology clinic that helps people improve their ability to speak. “We also help our students volunteer or find paid internships in local and state government agencies, hospitals, clinics, medical providers, community charitable organizations, local businesses and churches,” Henry said. “We organize an entire week of service called Devoted 24/7 where students, faculty and staff help ministries in our area assisting the homeless, feeding the hungry and ministering to the sick.”

    Pro Tips: How to Hire New Grads
    MBJ asked the experts heading up our area’s colleges and universities to give local businesses some advice on what to look for in recent college grads and how to hire them.

    Mitch Henry, Faulkner University President - I would suggest looking for the qualities of service, character and integrity. Those are foundational when it comes to a hardworking, honest and caring employee. Book knowledge is great when it comes to a specific skill set, but people need to also have qualities which endear them to their coworkers—humility, energy and a strong work ethic. Additionally, especially in our current age, we value those who are flexible and willing to adapt to changing environments. I have to say, at Faulkner, we focus on the whole person, not just their mind.

    Dr. Kemba Chambers, Trenholm State Community College President - Consider those who participated in some form of work-based learning as students. Work-based learning is integrated within many of Trenholm State’s program curricula in the form of apprenticeships, coops, internships, practicum field experiences, clinicals and labs, observations/ shadowing and simulations. Both students and employers benefit from these opportunities since it combines classroom learning with real-world experiences to more adequately prepare students to enter the workforce.

    Lauren Cole, Troy University Director of Career Services - While every employer looks for something different according to their industry, one underlying thing to consider would be: Is the graduate a lifelong learner who seeks to better themselves through their own reading and asking of questions? Do these potential employees demonstrate that they desire mentoring but do not need to be micromanaged? Employers should also be aware that today’s students are of a generation that seeks to work for companies and/or businesses that are good corporate citizens and are engaged in efforts to give back to their communities. Those efforts need to be conveyed by employers when they are speaking with graduates.

    Dr. Carl A. Stockton, AUM Chancellor - The first “must” on the list would be to get involved with our Career Development Center, which manages relationships with employers seeking students for fulltime jobs and internships. The CDC hosts Career Fairs during the academic year that enable local businesses to build awareness of their brand, services/products and mission and connect with a diverse group of students who are eager to identify fulfilling internship and job opportunities. Also, offering internships for undergraduate students can help you develop a future full-time employee who will understand your company’s culture and goals and be ready to contribute from day one.

    Dr. Sabrina Crowder, ASU Director of Career Services - If you are looking to hire a new college graduate this commencement season, you are in good company and could experience success, but be prepared to compete fiercely. The current labor market favors employees; therefore, employers have to be innovative with their employment offers. Gen Z students are not concerned with traditional offers such as a retirement package. Also, employers must not only sell potential employees on their company but also sell them on the city where the employer resides. It is best to partner with local officials to identify the perks of working and living in your city.

    Going After Fresh Grads? Here’s what they want. At the recent Fuel Alabama Conference, hosted by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, five Gen Z discussion panelists detailed what they are looking for in an employment offer to stay where they’re attending college after graduation:
    • Salary/livable wages
    • Acceptance of diversity
    • Job opportunities within the organization/career advancement
    • Employer-provided benefits
    • Political environment
    • Social awareness environment
    • Work/life balance
    • Opportunities to flex schedule: virtual work, and/or hybrid

    A Handy Tool
    A platform called Handshake is being used by thousands of higher ed institutions around the country, and locally, AUM, ASU and TROY all take advantage of this user-friendly tool. Students can create personal profiles to tout their skills and other offerings, participate in resume review and mock interview workshops and search for internship opportunities and full-time employment with more than 300,000 employers in every sector and industry. Businesses can post jobs and search student profiles.
    It’s a win-win, according to Lauren Cole, TROY Director of Career Services. “Handshake has allowed TROY students to interact with more than 10,000 employers to date. In just the spring 2022 semester thus far, we have had 182 employers register for our career fairs using Handshake.”

    Dr. Sabrina Crowder, Director of Career Services at ASU, agreed. “At ASU, Handshake is the school’s official job/internship portal. Thousands of employers are hiring students on Handshake,” she said. “Once students fill in their career interests, they’ll get personalized recommendations for jobs and events and direct outreach from employers interested in students; 80 percent of students with a complete Handshake profile get messaged by employers.”
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