Colleges can save America–community colleges, that is

Sit down and learn.
Sit down and learn.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Rising student debt. Rigid graduation requirements. Lack of preparation for the workforce. Higher education is under fire, and students are demanding answers. As fingers point at the institutions and government, bemoaning the state of higher education and searching for a scapegoat, one existing solution sits right in front of our noses: community colleges.

These two-year institutions are a valuable asset in the modern education system, but many are failing to see their true value. Ivy Leagues and major four-year public institutions get airtime and headlines, and remain the primary targets for higher education overhaul among most policy makers.

As a result, the conversation neglects to include community colleges. But these unsung heroes of higher education are actually Cinderella stories, and ones we should be paying much more attention to.

Community colleges serve as a launching point for students to later transition to four-year colleges, they offer associate’s degrees and certificates, and encourage lifelong and one-off learning. While they may be overlooked by the general public, community colleges add value that cannot be understated.

Pioneers of inclusivity

Community colleges offer a chance to those who need time, whether to get their grades up, or because they can’t afford a four-year college just yet (which on average cost 63% more for in-state tuition). Twenty-five percent of students who enroll in community college transfer to four-year institutions within five years. There is a significant portion of students who need this bridge. Community colleges encourage second chances and inclusivity, unlike some of their four-year counterparts that take pride in exclusivity.

They are front-runners in finding new ways to better support the nontraditional student. 71% of students who attend community colleges are older than 21, 30% are parents, and 33% are working full-time while they attend classes. Meanwhile, at nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, over 80% of students are ages 18-24, 15% have children, and 77% are enrolled in classes full-time.

Frontrunners of campus technology adoption

As a result of their diverse student body, and their commitment to the rapidly changing needs of their local communities, community colleges have learned to be flexible. They know that their students need support in myriad ways and have been at the forefront of adopting new technology to deliver that support. The traditional higher education system is not as accessible for nontraditional students who often have jobs and families, and community colleges have been at the forefront of finding methods to make education possible (i.e. online classes, flexible schedules, technology-assisted advising).

Earlier this year, the Virginia Community College system started making textbooks and resources available online to make education less expensive and more accessible. The California Community College System began its Online Education Initiative in 2014, aiming to support online learning at 24 community colleges by implementing a common course management system, providing faculty training in online teaching, and providing more student support tools. Even as early as 2006, the Kentucky Community and Technical College system began constructing its Learn On Demand program that combines competency-based education with online modular learning to better meet the personalized needs of a varied student body.

Due to the freedom and flexibility commonly found within the administrations of two-year institutions, entire networks of United States’ community colleges are scaling technology to adapt education to the needs of the real student of today.

Bridges to the workforce

They also play an important role in addressing the skills gap. There is much debate today about the value of a college degree. Marco Rubio lit media on fire with his blue-collar plea for more welders and fewer philosophers. Despite his concern that higher education is failing to produce skilled workers, these programs thrive at the two-year institution level. Community colleges and vocational schools are allowing for an alternative route through higher education. But the conversation continues to be focused on whether Rubio’s sentiments were factually accurate, rather than talking about the community colleges that provide skills-based education and associate’s degree opportunities.

That brings us to an obvious question: If community colleges offer so much, why is most of America ignoring them? Rubio got it right when he said we have wrongfully stigmatized vocational education. The United States’ preoccupation with four-year institutions is emotional. When America thinks of college, it romanticizes the packed football stadiums, large lecture halls, and well-manicured quads of major four-year institutions. We romanticize the notion of the idealistic college experience—and the national conversation doesn’t focus on the 1,123 community colleges that are solving many of higher education’s problems by preparing students for successful careers.

The solutions to many of higher education’s problems are percolating in two-year institutions—Obama nodded in that direction with the American College Promise, but all stakeholders need to start looking more seriously at community colleges.