Can Community Colleges Rise to the Occasion? Yes-With Fundamental Internal Reforms and a New Vision of Their Role in Higher Education

By Bailey, Thomas; Jacobs, Jim | The American Prospect, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Can Community Colleges Rise to the Occasion? Yes-With Fundamental Internal Reforms and a New Vision of Their Role in Higher Education


Bailey, Thomas, Jacobs, Jim, The American Prospect


Last summer President Barack Obama proposed a 10-year, $12 billion initiative to increase significantly the number of community college graduates. He made the announcement at Macomb Community College, where he was introduced by Joe Iezzi, a 54-year-old Macomb graduate who had been laid off after working as a steelworker in the automobile industry for 23 years. When the auto-parts supplier he worked for closed down, Iezzi returned to college to complete an associate degree in heating and air conditioning, a credential that helped land him a full-time job at a local hospital. His case was a perfect example of the role community colleges could play in retooling the human capital of a dynamic economy as labor is shed from declining industries and is sought by growing sectors. The challenge, however, is compounded by a recession that depresses normal education funding and also leaves students wondering if jobs for which they train will actually materialize.

Nearly 7 million students are registered for degree or certificate programs in community colleges, yet only 35 percent to 40 percent of them complete a two- or four-year degree or a certificate within six years. The ambitious goals set for community colleges cannot be met without improving these graduation rates. Moreover, research has shown that community college two-year degrees and less-than-two-year certificates, especially in well-defined occupational areas, are as valuable, relative to the time it takes to earn those awards, as four-year degrees.

Improving success rates of community college students could also improve equity in higher education. Community colleges are open-door institutions, welcoming students turned away by many four-year colleges. They represent the country's commitment to providing postsecondary educational opportunities for almost everyone. Thus improving outcomes for community college students will have a disproportionate positive effect on minority and low-income students. There are, for example, more low-income African American and Hispanic students at Bronx Community College alone than there are in the entire Ivy League.

As illustrated by Iezzi's story, community colleges also have a tradition of preparing workers for jobs in their local labor markets. The colleges are local institutions, often maintaining close relationships with neighboring employers. For example, at Macomb Community College, a certified nursing-assistant program has been developed to meet the needs of local nursing homes and home health-care facilities. And Macomb has had a long history of working closely with automobile companies such as General Motors and Chrysler: For years the college maintained the largest auto-body-design program of any postsecondary institution in the country, serving the large local auto-design industry. By maintaining interactive relationships with local employers, community colleges appear to be able not only to provide education but to do so in areas of interest to local employers. These ties also help graduates find jobs.

And community colleges are cheap. While the $50,000-a-year college cost has attracted much attention, $3,000 for a full year is high for a community college. A student can attend Macomb Community College full time for less than $1,200 a semester. The community colleges also cost states less. In Michigan, the entire state appropriation to all 28 community colleges is about equal to the state support for Michigan State University.

Thus, community colleges seem well positioned to address a series of social problems by offering increased degree completion, greater equity in higher education, enhanced economic development, and effective work-force development tied in an interactive way to the needs of local economies. And the colleges appear to be able to provide these benefits at a relatively low cost.

BUT CAN COMMUNITY COLLEGES live up to this potential? Many of the apparent strengths and advantages of these institutions coexist with serious underlying problems. …

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