The following was published in Education Week by a Jobs For The Future Writer
The future of higher education may depend on the success of community colleges.
By Vincent Badolato
When President Obama outlined his plans for the American Graduation Initiative, he emphasized the critical role of community colleges in educating and training students and adults for the jobs needed to keep the United States economically competitive.
“Now is the time to build a firmer, stronger foundation for growth that will not only withstand future economic storms, but one that will help us thrive and compete in the global economy,” he said in July at Macomb Community College in Michigan. “It’s time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future.”
A key goal of his plan is to see an additional 5 million people complete community college—earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year school—during the next 10 years. That will help the country once again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020, a distinction now held by Canada. The administration is proposing $12 billion in competitive grants to reach that goal and, education officials hope, improve the skills of workers, pull us out of the recession and lay the foundation for economic growth.
The initiative brings a national focus on an educational area that has more often been fodder for disparaging jokes by late-night comics than viewed as a path toward a middle-class job or a four-year degree. But many see the schools as a key way to retrain laid off workers and help them gain skills that will put them back on the job.
“Our community colleges are an integral part of the solution to help get our nation out of the current economic mess,” says Washington Senator Derek Kilmer, who chairs the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “They are critical for helping us retrain workers and meeting current and emerging employer demands.”
Idaho Senator John Goedde agrees. “The community college is one of our best economic development tools in that it can tailor training programs to suit the needs of industry,” he says. “It provides additional education to working adults in the community or those attempting to gain employment skills.”
The need to retrain and help people get back to work is critical. Unemployment reached 10.2 percent in October and some economists think it may exceed the 10.8 percent the nation hit in 1982—the highest rate since the Great Depression. The number of people unemployed was at 15.7 million in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The economy is changing, national demographics are changing, and in this new and evolving work environment, community colleges will be the driving force behind the future workforce,” says Carol Lincoln, senior program director at MDC, an education and workforce consultancy.
Change in Focus
The original community colleges at the turn of the 20th century focused on a traditional liberal arts education. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that community colleges also began to focus on job training. Then the post-World War II manufacturing boom and the original GI Bill led the Truman Commission to recommend creating a system of public colleges to serve local postsecondary and job training needs.
As baby boomers came of age in the 1960s, community colleges took off. More than 450 schools were founded during that decade. There are now about 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and the number is approximately 1,600 when school branches are included.
Community colleges enroll almost half of all American undergraduates in public institutions—6.5 million, or 46 percent—and about 5 million additional students who take classes for job skills or general educational enrichment but are not seeking a degree or certificate. These numbers are expected to be noticeably higher over the next few years as more people look to gain or improve their work skills. Taken together, community colleges award about 820,000 associate degrees or certificates annually.
Community colleges are traditionally the most affordable schools, with an average price tag of $2,361 a year compared to $6,185 for four-year public research institutions, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And they almost always admit anyone with a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate.
These features make community colleges the workhorses of higher education. They serve myriad roles, including helping students catch up through developmental, or remedial, classes; preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions; providing specialized workforce and jobs skills training; and teaching English as a second language. They also reach a disproportionate share of nontraditional college students—single parent, low-income, minority, immigrant, part-time, first generation and adult.
Community colleges also educate a large number of workers for vital professions. They are being called on in Michigan, for example, to help train displaced manufacturing workers for new “green jobs,” such as building solar panels and wind turbines. About 80 percent of law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians and almost 60 percent of new nurses and other health-care workers are credentialed at community colleges,
A Proven Success
Obama’s proposed American Graduation Initiative would offer an unprecedented increase in financial support for community colleges. The $12 billion in competitive grants would help them pay for new strategies to help students complete college, offer more programs that improve educational and employment results, improve facilities and create new online courses.
Improving community college completion rates is the most crucial part of this initiative. Close to half of all people who enter community colleges intending to graduate or transfer to a four-year school don’t reach their goal within six years.
“Those who begin at a community college thinking they will complete and then don’t leads to a huge loss of their dollars and state dollars as well,” says Theresa Lubbers, the Indiana commissioner of higher education and a recent senator. “Finding out what has contributed to their not completing—and what works to help them continue through a degree or certificate—is critical.”
The need to vastly improve completion rates at community colleges is echoed by Arkansas Representative Tiffany Rogers, who is also director of continuing education at Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. “The access to a postsecondary education provided by community colleges is critically important, but providing access does the student or state little good if they aren’t successful,” she says.
Several initiatives in various community colleges throughout the country are trying to help students reach their goals. One that has shown great results is Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count.
The aim of this five-year initiative is to help more students reach their individual goals, which may include earning a community college certificate or degree, attaining a bachelor’s degree or getting a better job.
Achieving the Dream has shown some impressive results so far. States involved have made student success a central part of their strategic plan and developed clear placement and assessment policies for remedial education. The program also rewards behavior—of both institutions and students—for promoting completion rates, and has dramatically increased data systems, allowing states to provide standardized and customized reports to the institutions to better inform policy and practice.
Challenge for States
While there is incredible potential for community colleges to help the nation meet college completion and workforce development needs, many challenges remain.
One of the most significant is improving the way remedial education classes are structured to help students finish more quickly and to reduce the need for them altogether. These classes can not only be expensive on a large scale, they also tend to discourage students from finishing college. The more of these classes students have to take, the less likely they are to get a degree or certificate.
“Unfortunately, it is not completely clear what really works to improve developmental education,” says Richard Kazis, senior vice president at Jobs for the Future. “Legislatures need to take the lead to make this is a priority.”
One step legislatures can take is to set a public goal to increase the number of students who successfully complete remedial classes and go on to finish a degree. Lawmakers can provide incentives and hold institutions accountable for reaching that goal.
State budget difficulties make all this more challenging. Community colleges rely on state and local appropriations for about 60 percent of their funding to keep them intentionally less expensive for students. As such, community colleges are heavily affected by cuts in state and local support.
“Decisions made at the state level have ramifications for community colleges,” says Washington’s Kilmer. “There is a real need for legislatures to discover and support policies that can lead to better student success rates.”
Demand to attend community colleges is rising quickly during this recession while funding has dropped and looks likely to drop more in the coming years. This has caused many institutions and systems around the nation to cap enrollments to ensure they adequately support the tide of new applicants.
Miami Dade College in Florida, the largest community college in the nation, has capped enrollments for the first time in its history. And in California, the nation’s largest system, $840 million in budget cuts has led to longer lines, fewer classes and higher student fees.
Advocates of community colleges, however, say it is