College campuses across the nation are facing declining enrollment amidst the economic shock of COVID-19. While many surveys hinted at a catastrophic jolt to 4-year institutions, it turns out community colleges are the ones experiencing the unprecedented student exodus. According to the latest reports from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment is down in community colleges by 10%, with working adults (-36.7%) and Hispanic students (-27.5%) hit the hardest. This data is counterintuitive when considering community colleges are typically viewed as both affordable and accessible pathways to upskilling and job-getting compared to 4-year institutions. So what do community colleges need to do differently to sustain their competitive advantage?
To answer this question, I sat down with Streetwise Partners’ Executive Director, Shari Krull. Streetwise Partners is a nonprofit that leverages mentorship to increase employment opportunities for adults from overlooked and under-resourced communities, and operates in New York City, DC and Detroit. Last month, we profiled its model in our growing collection of case studies highlighting organizations that are investing in students’ social capital. Below, Shari describes Streetwise Partners’ unique partnership model and offers crucial insights to community college leaders on how to optimize their value and continue to serve as a gateway to opportunity.
Mahnaz Charania: Can you share with us why Streetwise Partners places such a high priority on building networks and relationships? How is your model distinct from others enabling working adults’ access to jobs?
Shari Krull: A job represents more than just a paycheck. A job provides a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, a feeling of community, and financial stability. Research shows that people with jobs are happier, in better physical health, and contribute more to the economy.
However, unemployed and underemployed adults from overlooked and under-resourced communities have been denied access to middle-wage jobs due to structural inequity. Even those who have hit “the right” milestones—graduating college or a training program—are still at a disadvantage. Because of where they were born, what they look like, or the communities they represent, they often lack access to 1) job opportunities that lead to middle-wage employment, 2) professional development skills, resources, and experiential learning, and 3) social capital, including role models, references, and advocates. StreetWise Partners aim to challenge this injustice. We envision a society where hard work and self-determination is enough for career success.
StreetWise Partners is one of the only adult mentoring programs in the country. Our model is unique in that it is curriculum-driven and based on the most up-to-date hiring practices and most in-demand soft skills. Our model is cohort based and brings hundreds of mentors and mentees together to learn from one another and build a community of peers.
Charania: Your team is doing some impressive work in the community college space. Can you share a specific example of what a partnership looks like and what you’re seeing as a result?
Krull: Community colleges simply do not have the resources to support building social capital. Furthermore, the adjustments campus leaders have had to make over the past year reduced the number of organic relationships that students form and cultivate.
StreetWise Partners helps community college students and young adults build relationships and professional skills, while empowering them with tools to activate them. Our program is designed to ensure quantity, quality, and diversity of relationships through our 2,000 volunteers annually. Our mentors can teach our mentees how to identify opportunities, how to expertly promote themselves, and how to navigate the job market to achieve their goals.
We are proud of our partnership with the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) in New York. For years, we have worked to ensure that their students and graduates develop the essential soft skills and social capital needed to compete in the workforce. Every quarter, we host informational sessions for their students. They can enroll in our 13-week mentoring program where they will be matched with two mentors. Together, mentees and mentors produce deliverables including career maps, sophisticated resumes, cover letters, strengths assessments, elevator pitches, LinkedIn profiles, and public speaking presentations. Mentors prepare mentees for mock interviews and speed-networking events that provide practice opportunities with one-time volunteers. Our mentors arrange at least four informational interviews for their mentees and StreetWise hosts over 30 networking events (now virtual) to ensure social capital-building. Through these activities and projects, mentors serve as role models and share expectations around dress code, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and time management.
In our program overall, 70% of graduates are employed within one year, with average annual salaries increasing 250%. Professional contacts increase per learner from one to over 100.
Charania: How have you seen COVID-19 impact your mentees and what changes have you had to make to your approach to address those challenges?
Krull: With a high unemployment rate and a tight job market, we have adapted our model to ensure we remain responsive to the changing need of our clients and the shifts in the workforce. Our core program remains the same as the content remains relevant; however, we have adapted the curriculum, access to volunteers, and service delivery. We took a similar approach in 2008: we conducted a needs assessment of our community and responded based on their needs.
On a macro level, we have shifted all programming to a virtual setting and provided computers to our highest-need clients. We implemented a new centralized learning management system to ensure we can provide access to our curriculum and additional resources online. We have new tutorials to train our mentees on how to use Zoom and other virtual communication tools.
Our curriculum has been adjusted to include new topics like artificial intelligence-interviewing, COVID-related interview questions, and online etiquette. We spend a lot of time talking about online branding and how to utilize social media to identify job opportunities. We increased the number of virtual events with companies to help build professional relationships to open doors to jobs. Current mentees and alumni are invited to bi-weekly special events with companies like TIAA, Mediacom, First Republic, Fitch Ratings, Full Potential Solutions and other companies that are looking to diversify their talent pool. We hosted a Workforce Summit in August for 200 graduates and each participant reportedly left the full-day event with seven new contacts.
The virtual group setting format has allowed us to deepen and expand our community even further across all regions. Mentees gain access to volunteers from a variety of sectors and backgrounds as well as locations.
Charania: We’re starting to see pretty clearly that the Biden-Harris administration is committed to investing in community colleges and career training to improve student success. Based on your learnings from Streetwise Partners and your partnership with community colleges, what advice do you have for the Biden-Harris administration?
Krull: With the arrival of COVID-19, developing students’ social capital has never been more important. Jobs are scarce and competition for open roles is fierce. Young adults need direct, personal connection to opportunities in order to compete in the job market. Today, estimates suggest that up to 70% of all jobs are not published on publicly available job search sites. Research has long shown that anywhere from half to upwards of 80% of jobs are filled through networking. According to LinkedIn, more than 70% of professionals get hired at companies where they already have a connection. On LinkedIn, applicants who are referred to a job by a current employee are nine times more likely to get hired.
According to the 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni survey, however, fewer than half of alums reported having access to a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams while attending their institution. Of those alums who did report access to a mentor, 72% of white graduates said their mentor was a professor, whereas only 47% of non-white graduates said the same. Community colleges tend to be under-resourced, and therefore it is critical that nonprofits like ours work closely with the schools to make sure that students have access to advocates and champions in the form of mentors.
The next administration should invest in career exposure, experiential learning, professional networks, peer support, and, of course, mentorship. As our country heals and we enter a post-pandemic workforce, curriculum and partnerships should be enhanced to build students’ social capital alongside the critical thinking, problem-solving, and digital skills that allow individuals to succeed in a rapidly changing, technology-infused workplace over the long term.