Magazine article State Legislatures

Building Community: The Future of Higher Education May Depend on the Success of Community Colleges

Magazine article State Legislatures

Building Community: The Future of Higher Education May Depend on the Success of Community Colleges

Article excerpt

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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.

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"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."

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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. …

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