Tapping Into Student Interests to Drive Innovative Academic Career Programming

Ruth M. Williams
Innovation Showcase

Oakton Community College’s Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate program is the direct result of a single interaction between a senior Oakton administrator and an Oakton alumnus. The alumnus worked for a medical cannabis dispensary and expressed the need for educated patient care specialists who were able to interact with chronically ill patients—in other words, those with job skills that go beyond being a “weed enthusiast.”

Students and alumni can positively impact curriculum and academic programming as members of career advisory committees and by playing a role in student learning outcomes (SLO) assessment. Montenegro and Jankowski (2020) recently renewed the call to engage students in SLO assessment to improve student learning. The Illinois Community College Board recommends including students on program (career) advisory committees as a best practice (Thompson et al., 2018). Oakton Community College, a medium-sized public institution north of Chicago, Illinois, includes this best practice in its recommendations when conducting biannual reviews of career program advisory committee membership. Students and alumni, as newer members of the labor force, provide insight into current and emerging markets.

Community colleges are regularly touted as having the capacity to respond rapidly to changing labor markets. Over the years, some institutions have created academic career programs in response to government statistics; however, these statistics may be outdated (Alstadt, 2011). Career advisory committees and strategic partnerships with local and regional organizations, municipalities, and agencies can inform industry needs, but require time to coordinate and assemble. In addition, members do not always reflect the breadth of the market necessary to identify evolving skills in existing markets or to identify emerging markets. To be responsive to evolving and emerging labor markets, community colleges need to identify untapped resources.

Community colleges in states such as Florida and New Jersey are turning to datasets created from online job postings to identify new and emerging labor markets and associated skills. Identifying changing and emerging markets is necessary as international trade and new and advancing technology, like automation and artificial intelligence, require new and advanced skills (Alstadt, 2011). New and changing markets can also result in state and federal governments setting professional development, licensure, and certification requirements. Community colleges can set the educational standards that governments use as they try to stay abreast of changing and emerging markets. Community colleges can also create academic programs that lead to careers for the unemployed and provide opportunities for the employed to upskill (Alstadt, 2011).

Current students and alumni are an untapped resource to help colleges identify developing labor markets. As a result of student and alumni interests, Oakton launched two unique academic career certificate programs in the 2019-2020 academic year: Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist program and Cancer Registry Management program.

Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist Program

The development of the Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate program involved early discussions with dispensary employees and a thorough review of online job postings. Job projections by Forbes, cannabis data, and information from hiring firms (Hudock, 2019; Murphy, 2019; Vangst, 2019) were used to identify labor market needs and trends and were reported to the Illinois Community College Board to establish the demand for this new curriculum. Job postings also identified baseline educational requirements and skills necessary for cannabis-related dispensary, cultivation, and transportation jobs. Oakton recruited cannabis industry partners to join its Cannabis Advisory Committee and to provide further detail on the skills required to work in the industry. Initial partners included dispensary owners and employees, including budtenders (patient care specialists) and sales development managers; state representatives integral to the passing of the Illinois’ medical cannabis pilot program; directors of government relations; and members of organizations that support the responsible use of cannabis. These partners were critical in the development of the curriculum for the Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate. For instance, a first aid class was added to the curriculum based on the recommendation of dispensary owners, who require their employees to be trained in first aid so they can assist patients suffering from debilitating conditions, as needed. In addition, dispensary owners noted that they try to recruit their own medical cannabis clients to work in the dispensary because they understand how an illness can impact a person’s identity. As a result, “The Experience of Illness” course was included in the curriculum. This class provides future dispensary and patient care specialists with an understanding of how illness affects a person’s behaviors and demeanor and how to communicate with people suffering from an illness.

Oakton’s Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate program was launched in fall 2019, six months after it was approved by the state and 18 months after curriculum development started. The 12-credit hour certificate, the first of its kind in Illinois, is composed of seven classes: Introduction to Cannabis, Cannabis and the Law, Pharmacology and Medical Cannabis, The Experience of Illness, Dispensary Operations, Introduction to Business, and First Aid. One hundred students enrolled in the program and ten students earned the credential at the end of the fall term. Students enrolled in fall classes were not only demographically diverse, but their reasons for being in the program were just as varied, bringing unique experiences and perspectives to the classroom.

As additional cannabis careers were identified, the advisory committee expanded to include cultivation center owners and members of the Cannabis Business Alliance of Illinois. This has resulted in the newly state-approved Cannabis Transportation, Logistics, and Supply Chain Management certificate program. Oakton’s cannabis curriculum, which is geared toward the medical cannabis industry, complements the college’s already strong health careers curriculum. Furthermore, students who earn the Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate and an Associate in General Studies degree can seamlessly transfer to Northern Michigan University’s Medicinal Plant Chemistry bachelor's degree program.

Oakton is the only community college in the state to be awarded responsible vendor status by the Illinois Department of Finance and Professional Regulations. Due to this distinction, Oakton’s noncredit programming provides the required annual professional development for incumbent dispensary employees. In addition, Oakton applied for and was awarded a Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act Social Equity Program grant by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunities in February 2020. As a result, the college is now offering forums, workshops, and one-on-one consulting sessions to assist Adult-Use Cannabis Social Equity Program applicants in completing craft grower, transporter, and dispensary license applications. In the 2020-2021 academic year, Oakton will offer twenty social equity applicants free tuition for its Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care Specialist certificate program. Oakton’s leadership in cannabis programming also makes it a strong candidate for the State of Illinois’ Careers in Cannabis Certificate License pilot cultivation program.

Cancer Registry Management Program

Student interest also led to the development of Oakton Community College’s new Cancer Registry Management (CRM) certificate program. As part of the college’s Health Information Technology program, students are exposed to different career options. Students in a Health Information Technology class responded positively and excitedly to a guest presentation by a certified Cancer Registry Manager in October 2018, which triggered the college to conduct a labor market analysis. The analysis revealed that only one community college in Illinois and nine community colleges in the U.S. offered the CRM curriculum at the time, and that there was a regional and national need for cancer and tumor registrars.

Oakton hired consultants from the cancer registry field to assist in the development of the curriculum, ensuring it aligned with the National Cancer Registrars Association’s standards. The Health Information Technology Advisory Committee, which now includes cancer registrars from Oakton’s district, reviewed and approved curriculum in preparation for approval by the college’s Curriculum Committee, Administration, and Board of Trustees, and the Illinois Community College Board and Higher Learning Commission. Oakton’s CRM certificate program received final approval by the Higher Learning Commission within six months of the CRM guest speaker visit and the CRM program has provisional accreditation by the National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA).

Oakton Community College is now the tenth accredited community college in the nation to offer this program. Spring 2020 was the CRM certificate program’s inaugural term and five graduates of the Health Information Technology program are currently enrolled. The Health Information Technology faculty are converting all CRM classes to an online format to increase reach and enrollment. This move to online has been invaluable in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Students and Alumni: An Untapped Resource

Community colleges need to use all the resources at their disposal to identify new markets beyond traditional methods, such as career advisory committees and labor market analyses. Identifying emerging labor markets is an effective approach to assessing local and regional trends. Current students and alumni are an untapped resource that can help institutions identify new labor markets before they dominate job postings. Oakton Community College has leveraged this resource to respond to surfacing job markets. The college will continue to do so by enhancing alumni relationships and strategies to collect job placement data, and by capturing incoming student interests. “From a strategic enrollment management perspective, as well as a socially responsible perspective, effective curriculum is consistent with the interests of communities," said Ileo N. Lott, Oakton’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. "We are watching COVID 19 carefully. As much as the pandemic took away employment, we believe that it will springboard new opportunities, which will require new curriculum.”


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Illinois Department of Public Health. (2019, August 15). Debilitating conditions. http://www.dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/prevention-wellness/medical-cannabis/debilitating-conditions

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Murphy, K. (2019, May 20). Cannabis is becoming a huge job creator. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinmurphy/2019/05/20/cannabis-is-becoming-a-huge-job-creator/#3034677049bf

Thompson, W., Julian, A., Boston, B. Anderson, C., & Borowski, C. (2018). Advisory committee guidebook: Partnerships for postsecondary education. Illinois Community College Board. https://icsps.illinoisstate.edu/images/pdfs/CTE/Perkins_V/Super-Strategies-Advisory-Committee-Guidebook-Updated.pdf

Vangst. (2019). Vangst 2019 report: Cannabis industry salary guide. https://info.vangst.com/vangst-2019-salary-guide?_ga=2.128361288.558649838.1594219663-1556168135.1594219663

Ruth M. Williams is Assistant Vice President, Academic Affairs, and Dean, Curriculum and Instruction, at Oakton Community College in St. Charles, Illinois.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.