The writer, a McCook, Neb., native, is a past president/chancellor of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas). He taught at Princeton.
For generations the community colleges of America were seen as second-class members of the higher education community, or where the ill-prepared and marginal high school graduates should go. The first to be established was Joliet Junior College in Illinois in 1901.
Too many traditional academicians from prestigious colleges and universities did not see these students as an academic fit for their tradition-bound campuses or as likely candidates for graduate and professional degrees like the sciences, law and medicine.
In the years that followed, more and more two-year college students showed their collective might as the heart of the nation's work force, as a segment of education to be reckoned with across the country. Amazingly, community colleges now serve nearly half of the undergraduates in the United States and four-year schools count on them for transfers, a key part of their base and stability.
An imposing number of community college students are transferring to four-year colleges and meeting with regular and impressive success in the classrooms and laboratories. Some surpass their fellow students who went to four-year institutions for the full four years of study.
The stigma was lifting in the 1990s, and we witnessed a spiraling number of successful transfer students who earned baccalaureate degrees in a wide and demanding range of disciplines, particularly in areas of high societal need.
In the past five years, the perceived value of a degree from a two-year college has soared, as leaders from business, industry and government lamented the fact that there were not enough highly skilled and trained individuals to fill needed and well-paying jobs. America asked for immediate assistance as the country suffered paralyzing unemployment amid demands for a new breed of employees and leaders.
With the nation suffering from a stagnant and diminished economy, dim prospects for an early recovery and millions of jobs that could not be filled with the right men and women, President Barack Obama turned to the community colleges for accelerated relief, quantifiable results and workable educational programs.
He asked the two-year colleges to work directly with the private sector to tailor education for immediate job needs; in return, the federal government and the private sector delivered increases in federal and private dollars to advance the cause.
Suddenly, the tables were turned and in an unprecedented way: Community colleges bathed in the new-found attention, while their four-year brethren were targeted by a chorus of critics who questioned their fundamental value to the economy and the future.
One of the selected few that gained national attention was Trident Technical College, South Carolina's second-largest institution of higher learning with some 18,000 students. Boeing hailed the two-year school when it established an assembly line for the massive new Dreamliner, bringing with it more than 1,600 jobs and the promise of another line and a large research component. Some 4,000 jobs are possible.
“We worked to adapt the curriculum to accommodate Boeing's educational and training needs,” Trident President Mary Thornley recalled. “The community really pulled together to attract Boeing.” Quite similar success stories from business and industry dot the countryside.
Community colleges — and there are 1,655 of them across the United States — are positioned for additional support from all levels of government, especially from local and state sources. They are especially popular in large states like California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois and New York. About 23 percent of the community college students will transfer to four-year colleges and universities, saving their already-strapped parents millions of dollars.
In order to further advance the community college movement, which is essential, the colleges must retain their open access mission and couple with it strategies to help students complete a certificate, a degree or transfer. Their stunning success is attributable to their open access mission, and now they need to focus on the equally important objective of student completion.
Community colleges need to provide greater academic direction to students when they enroll. The students clearly need better direction — whether it is in the traditional liberal arts or work force-related certificates and credentials.
Community colleges should continue to improve developmental education since more than 50 percent of all students who enter community colleges need to complete such a course, one that will help them transition from high school to college.
Community colleges should continue to keep overhead low and, in doing so, keep tuition and fees reasonable for students and families. And remember that community colleges remain the least funded among the public colleges and universities.
Community colleges also must continue to demonstrate to government leaders that investment in these unique institutions will pay by helping students earn degrees and obtain jobs.