Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America's Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges

The Catalyst, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America's Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges

A Report of The National Commission on Community Colleges


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.

In the century since they were founded, community colleges have become the largest single sector of American higher education, with nearly 1,200 regionally accredited two-year colleges enrolling 6.5 million students annually for credit (nearly half of all American undergraduates) and another 5 million for noncredit courses. Students range in age from teenagers to octogenarians, annually taking courses in everything from English literature, biochemistry, and statistics to foreign languages, the arts, community development, emergency medical procedures, engine maintenance, and hazardous waste disposal.

These institutions:

* Certify nearly 80 percent of first responders in the United States (police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians);

* Produce more than 50 percent of new nurses and other health-care workers;

* Account for nearly 40 percent of all foreign undergraduates on American campuses;

* Enroll 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, including 47 percent of undergraduates who are African American, 47 percent of those who are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively, of Hispanic and Native American undergraduates;

* Award more than 800,000 associate degrees and certificates annually; and

* Prepare significant numbers of students for transfer to four-year colleges and universities where they complete bachelor's degrees. Nationally, half of all baccalaureate degree recipients have attended community colleges prior to earning their degrees.

Beyond these official statistics, community colleges offer a start in life to many people who become leaders in business, industry, literature, the arts, public service and government, health, the sciences, and space exploration.

Yet, despite this evidence of success and productivity, community colleges are largely overlooked in national discussions about education. As a policy concern, they are often invisible.

The ingrained habit of ignoring the current and potential contributions of community colleges must be broken if the United States hopes to respond effectively to several significant trends reshaping national and international life:

* The growing economic vulnerability of the United States. The National Commission on Community Colleges' analyses (see Tables 1 and 2 of the report) indicate that half of at least some postsecondary education. Even in high-demand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, the role of community colleges is critical. To meet the nation's needs in STEM fields, the United States should plan on a 25.1 percent increase in the number of associate degrees awarded and a 19.7 percent increase in bachelor's degrees awarded.

* Challenges to the stability of the middle class and social mobility. The gap between rich and poor in the United States is growing. Yet the evidence is indisputable: An associate degree permits the community college graduate to almost double the average annual earnings of high school dropouts ($37,990 compared to $19,915).

* Dramatic changes in the nation's demographics and population. The American population is aging; the face of America is changing as almost all the growth in the number of high school graduates is made up of minority Americans; young adults are experimenting with new patterns of schooling and work. Amid all these changes, community colleges are well equipped to help address the needs of the nation and its people.

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Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America's Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges


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