Regional Economic Development: A View from American Community Colleges

Presentation at the CCA Annual Conference, 26 July 2017, by Dr Roberta Teahen, Associate Provost & Director of the Doctorate in Community College Leadership, Ferris State University, Michigan; and Dr Laurie Chesley, Provost & Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan.


With his American Graduation Initiative – to increase the number of community college graduates by five million by 2020 – and his subsequent calls for free community college tuition, President Barack Obama brought America’s two-year institutions into national prominence. Their important role in higher education in general and their vital role as engines of economic development became more broadly acknowledged and appreciated, if not always supported and funded.

In the Obama and post-Obama era, our national conversation has centred on the need for community colleges to train and re-train workers, particularly in high-demand, high-wage jobs. Many of these jobs are to replace those lost from industries that had become obsolete or been shipped out of the country. Many are in emerging STEM fields, including health occupations. Although this conversation is national in scope, the actual role of community colleges in economic development is almost always primarily regional.

After setting this general political and economic context, we will focus our presentation on three specific areas. First, we will describe the characteristics (the best practices) of the most successful examples of U.S. community college impact on regional economic development Second, we will shift our attention to the key partners of U.S. community colleges in the regional development enterprise – local businesses and industries, and local and state governments – and examine the roles they can play, both positive and negative. Lastly, we will offer a more detailed case study from our own experience: the situation in the state of Michigan, part of the Rust Belt, where changes in the manufacturing sector, and especially the automotive industry, contributed to a serious economic recession, which, thanks to many factors, including the commitment of community colleges, is beginning to lift.


Anne M. Kress and Gerardo E. do los Santos, editors, The Role of Community Colleges in Regional Economic Prosperity, The League for Innovation in the Community College, 2014. Available at

Richard Kazis, Community Colleges and Regional Recovery: Strategies for State Action, The Brookings Institution, May 2011. Available at