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Community Colleges: The Handymen of U.S. Higher Education September 2009

Community Colleges: The Handymen of U.S. Higher Education

By David Shaffer
Senior Fellow, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

David Shaffer

President Obama’s visit this week to Hudson Valley Community College in Troy cast a spotlight on the central role that the nation’s community colleges can play in upgrading the American workforce to meet the challenges of this century.



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David Shaffer is a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, focusing on education issues and economic development.
A version of this article appeared earlier in the Times Union of Albany, N.Y., on Sept. 23.

As the president said, community colleges have become the place “for anyone with the desire to take their career to a new level — or start a new career altogether.”

Hudson Valley — with training programs in emerging fields like solar energy, and with construction underway on a whole new facility that will provide workers for a huge new chip fabrication plant opening in Saratoga County — is an outstanding example of the potential the president was talking about.

But if we’re to make the most of our community colleges, we may need to choose some priorities among all the various things we expect them to do.

Because right now, community colleges are kind of the grab-bag of the U.S. public higher education system. They are expected to do so many things that there’s reason to worry about them doing the most important things well. Consider:

  • Our high schools produce thousands of “graduates” each year who aren’t actually prepared to do college-level work — so we count on community colleges to provide remedial education.

  • Tuition at our four-year colleges and universities keeps rising faster than inflation and family incomes, making them harder for working families to afford. So community colleges are expected to make up the gap, providing a lower-cost two-year entrée to students whose ultimate goal is to transfer to a four-year school.

  • Students who graduate from four-year colleges with liberal arts degrees often find that they can’t get much of a job — so they need to go back to school to learn something marketable. Where can they go? Community colleges.

  • States that cap admissions to their four-year colleges — Pennsylvania and California, for example — want the community colleges to provide a kind of relief valve, with open enrollment and lower tuition charges.

  • Meanwhile young people who want to get good jobs in fields like fire safety or dental hygiene need education beyond high school — but not necessarily a four-year degree. Where do they go? Community colleges.

  • The U.S. Labor Department spends more than $10 billion every year on job training programs, relatively little of which goes to community colleges. Yet when a new employer comes to town needing a fast and effective training program for the workers it wants to hire, often as not it turns to the community college, not the local labor office. That’s what led to the new TEC-SMART training facility that Hudson Valley is building to support the region’s emerging chip-fab industry and other high-tech sectors.

These are all valuable functions — but which ones take priority? Can we really expect community colleges to do them all?

Public two-year colleges now enroll close to 7 million full- and part-time students in for-credit classes — about half of all students in public higher education. But their budgets total only about one-sixth of spending on public higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Most community colleges are expected to enroll any high-school graduate. But at least 29 percent of their incoming students require some kind of remediation before they can take regular academic courses, according to NCES. That, alone, is a substantial drain on resources.

About two-thirds of new high-school graduates who enter community colleges say they intend to go on to four-year college, the NCES reports. But the most recent nationwide data indicate that almost 40 percent of those drop out within three years with no degree, no certificate and no transfer. And almost half of those who enroll with the intention of getting a two-year degree drop out. As the president said, “too many of our young talented people are slipping through the cracks.”

The one bright spot: much higher graduation rates among those taking courses with immediate employment potential, like nursing, or criminal justice services. (Such programs now account for 60 percent of community college students who complete their degree programs.) Meanwhile the most rapid enrollment growth area for many community colleges appears to be noncredit courses that aren’t going to lead to a degree or a certificate. Often these are intended to teach a particular skill needed by a particular local employer at a particular time — this, in fact, is much of what will be done at Hudson Valley’s TEC-SMART.

As President Obama pointed out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that about 45 percent of job openings in the years ahead will require more than a high-school education, but less than a four-year degree — a half-million “middle skill” jobs a year, ranging from dental hygienists to electricians to firefighters. Perhaps more surprising, jobs requiring a four-year degree or better are projected to account for only about 33 percent of openings.

With that message, maybe the president himself is pointing to the priority for community colleges. Instead of simply making up for the high schools or serving as an also-ran to four-year academic institutions, maybe policymakers will free them to emphasize the skills that will position their students for the most promising new job opportunities. Hudson Valley Community College is leading the way.


ABOUT THE ROCKEFELLER INSTITUTE OF GOVERNMENT

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.