America's Secret Educational Weapon: Community Colleges; Community Colleges Are Vital for America's Future Competitiveness, but They Are Often Overlooked by Policy Leaders and Even Educators. Mr. Magrath Argues That It Is Time to Pay Attention

Article excerpt

THE U.S. has a powerful weapon in its educational arsenal: its community colleges. Yet these institutions are so often overlooked in discussions of the future of U.S. society and the U.S. work force that they might as well be deemed "top secret."

But consider some basic facts. More than 1,200 community colleges enroll some 47% of all undergraduates. Put another way, each year community colleges enroll 6.5 million students in credit courses and another 5 million in valuable noncredit learning experiences. Nearly half of all baccalaureate degree recipients in the U.S. first attended a community college.

And yet, despite these extremely large numbers, many leaders and faculty members at four-year colleges and universities and many secondary school counselors engage in a subtle put-down of community colleges. A patronizing attitude is all too common in the view that these institutions are fine for less talented or less well-off individuals, who deserve some educational opportunity even if it is "just" at a community college. Such schools may be useful institutions, but many in higher education, to put it bluntly, view them as second rate.

To those who, perhaps unintentionally and without malice, exhibit these attitudes, I say, think again. In the highly economically competitive 21st century, the U.S. needs to be fully armed educationally. And to be so armed, all parts of the system are essential. Without strong and educationally challenging elementary and secondary schools and without strong collegiate education--both two- and four-year--America will not compete successfully in this new century.

The outdated misconceptions about community colleges are confronted forthrightly in the recently released report from the College Board, Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America's Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges. (1) The opening words come directly to the point:

  American community colleges are the nation's overlooked asset. As the
  United States confronts the challenges of globalization, two-year
  institutions are indispensable to the American future. They are the
  Ellis Island of American higher education, the crossroads at which
  K-12 education meets colleges and universities, and the institutions
  that give many students the tools to navigate the modern world.

Moreover, the report continues to cite numbers that might strike some as startlingly large. Community colleges produce "nearly 80% of first responders in the United States (police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians)." They produce more than half of the new nurses and health-care workers in the nation each year, and they award more than 800,000 associate degrees and certificates each year.

But of course the role of community colleges is far broader than the preparation of police officers or nurses. Indeed, America needs all the skills that it can mobilize in its work force, from savvy businesspeople, to first-rate researchers, to committed professionals in countless fields, including great teachers in our elementary and secondary schools. And here again, community colleges play an important role. More than 50% of teachers have attended a community college for part of their education, and community college and associate degree programs are an essential part of the pipeline that feeds the teacher education programs of the nation's four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges also offer professional development programs to pre-K-12 teachers in such vital fields as math, science, English as a second language, and special education. And in many states they offer an alternative path to certification.

Consider the example of just one state. In Maryland, community colleges have taken on a growing role in teacher education. In recent years, Prince George's Community College expanded its teacher education program into a complete department and worked with all of the state's community colleges to create a single associate degree in teaching. …