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The Underappreciated Value of America’s Community Colleges

They can play a larger role in rebuilding economies, breathing life into broken communities and enhancing diversity. Providing 14 years of free public education is an idea that deserves a closer look.

Students at a community college nurse assistant class watch a demo of patient care. (TNS)
Although Forbes reports that Americans' college debt totals nearly $1.6 trillion, second only to home mortgage debt, the issue of higher-education costs has gotten little attention in the homestretch of the presidential campaign, drowned out by conflict over issues ranging from the response to the pandemic to achieving racial justice to how and when to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat.

That's not to say that the major-party candidates don't have positions on higher-education costs. Vice President Joe Biden, whose wife Dr. Jill Biden is a community college professor, has proposed extending free public education through at least two years of college and specifically making community colleges free. President Trump is arguing that states should do more because they know best the educational needs of their residents, and his campaign describes Biden's plan as "anything but free" and "socialist."

Whoever triumphs in November, it's important to recognize that community colleges occupy a vital and underappreciated place in our system of public higher education. Often called one of America's best-kept secrets, they have been around for nearly 120 years and comprise approximately 50 percent of total college enrollment, but their significance became a focal point during the Obama-Biden administration when they were promoted as a cost-effective means for retraining industrial workers who lost their jobs when factories closed or relocated during the Great Recession.

Community colleges, sometimes called technical colleges or other names, provide a varying range of academic offerings. Many are comprehensive two-year institutions that offer pathways for students to transfer to four-year colleges or universities after they receive an associate's degree in a liberal arts or STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) field. They also offer technical education for students who plan to immediately enter the workforce upon completion of a certificate or degree in areas like certified nursing assistant or film production assistant.

As a former technical college president, I know firsthand the value of community college and technical education. For one, it offers an opportunity for students who have been underprepared for higher education to spend two years in an environment where they are nurtured by instructors who specialize in educating students who are underprepared or late bloomers. Many community colleges also offer an opportunity for students who have dropped out of high school to receive a high-school-equivalency degree such as a General Education Development (GED) diploma or certificate.

Community colleges serve as incubators for student learning in other ways. One innovation we advanced at my college was to allow some students to enroll in college and GED courses simultaneously. We discovered that this helped them to earn their GEDs sooner by getting a taste of college courses while taking noncredit, remedial classes. We also encouraged our instructors to contextualize math and reading units to a student's field of study, thereby enabling, for example, welders to learn math geared to that occupation and automotive-mechanics students to take computer science courses in lieu of or in addition to basic math.

Community colleges are valuable because they not only are affordable but also provide a path for first-generation college students to attend college and are sensitive to community workforce needs. In my state of Georgia and in 19 other states that offer similar programs, the colleges offer tuition-free grants for students willing to enter into fields with skills shortages such as nursing, welding, commercial truck driving, automotive technology and computer technology. We branded this program as a "poverty fighter," inviting faith-based institutions, community-based organizations, and labor and civil rights groups to assist in marketing it to their constituencies, and enrollment soared.

One of my earlier accomplishments as president was to consolidate the institution's community outreach efforts into a single department. Some welcomed the change and others did not, but I wanted my college to be a community college in more than just name. Our "poverty fighter" program allowed us to reduce our costs for recruitment by engaging the community, and we invested savings from having a smaller staff into other worthwhile endeavors like community health and fitness centers and a conference center accessible to the public for weddings and banquets as well as business gatherings.

Because of these kinds of amenities and innovations, I believe that community colleges will continue to play an important role in rebuilding state and local economies, breathing life back into broken communities, and enhancing diversity. Approximately 55 percent of all students enrolled in community colleges are from minority groups, according to data collected by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Those groups are disproportionately represented among unemployed and underemployed workers. If they could receive up to two years of free community college education while waiting for the economy to return to pre-coronavirus levels, they would not only have acquired the skills needed for high-demand jobs but arguably would also end up better off in terms of potential earning power than they were prior to the pandemic. Government officials and the public should give proposals for free community and technical college education a closer look. They may just find in them the key to addressing many of the systemic disparities that have plagued our nation for generations.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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