Chile's First Community College Remakes Technical Education's Image

With help from the United States, a university in Santiago creates an affordable pathway for students

Paul Shoul for The Chronicle

Cristopher Valdés Vergarra chose Chile's new community college because of its affordability and flexibility, which allows him to work full time at a real-estate agency. If he wants to continue studying after he graduates, Central U. of Santiago would accept all his credits.
November 07, 2010

This year, Cristopher Valdés Vergarra saw an advertisement for the new Community College of Santiago in a Metro station. Mr. Vergarra, who had dropped out of a nearby university after one semester for financial reasons, visited the college's Web site for more information.

He liked what he saw. Today he is one of about 160 students enrolled in the country's first community college, which is run by the Central University of Chile with support from the City University of New York's LaGuardia Community College.

Mr. Valdés, 21, chose the college because of its affordability and its flexible course system, which allows him to work full time at a real-estate agency. When he graduates with a two-year degree in construction management, he says, his boss will promote him.

If he were to continue on in his studies, his course work would be fully recognized by Central University, as is the case with the college's other five fields of study: network administration and security, programming, telecommunications, business management, and accounting.

The program's university affiliation, along with the dual degree from LaGuardia that most students will receive, adds to its value in the eyes of employers, says Sergio Quezada González, the college's executive director.

While Chile is home to a number of technical centers and professional institutes, the community college is a new concept. Historically, technical education in Chile has not been well regarded. By creating a technical-education program that is part of Central University, Mr. Quezada and his colleagues want to bridge the gap between those who can afford a university education and those who can't­—and in doing so, remake the image of technical education.

The community college's developers envision it as a way to direct more students into the kind of two-year system that has proved so successful in the United States: a practical, inexpensive education with a clear pathway to a university degree, should students choose to continue studying.

Improving Social Mobility

The Community College of Santiago opened this past spring, the culmination of five years of collaboration between Central University and LaGuardia.

Mr. Quezada, who is also dean of the physical sciences and mathematics at Central University, saw a need and a market for a high-quality technical-education program. He began looking at other countries' models and contacted Jorge Perez, a faculty member at LaGuardia and his former professor at a technical university in Chile, to find out more about community colleges in the United States.

Over the next few years, the institutions created exchange programs for students and faculty and began making plans for Central University to open its own community college, says Jose L. Orengo, executive director for government relations at La­­Guar­d­ia and its project director for the community college in Chile.

LaGuardia continues to lend Central University its expertise and support.

The programs that confer dual degrees­—five of the Chilean college's six programs of study—­were reviewed by LaGuardia to ensure that their curricula matched the New York institution's academic standards.

Mr. Quezada was drawn to the U.S. model of community colleges because of its role in facilitating social mobility, he says.

"The reality in Chile is that people can't study for four, five years, and one reason is money," he says. "This type of project is very important because it opens doors for students with few resources."

As the college evolves—­with plans to add degrees and triple its enrollment—­its administrators have their eyes on work-force development. Their goal is to create a more diverse pool of skilled workers for the country's growing economy, and as part of their mission they are building ties with local industries.

They are recruiting members for a business advisory board and seeking donors to help cover the college's operating expenses and create institutional scholarships. They want partners who can provide students with internships and employment opportunities, Chilean companies that can help the college tailor its curricula to industry needs.

Impression of Innovation

The unassuming, four-story building that holds the community college's classrooms sits in the capital's bustling center, a few blocks removed from the core of Central University's campus.

Students trickle in and out throughout the day and into the night. Classes begin at 7 a.m., with the last ending at 10:30 p.m.

The college's youngest students are about the age of Mr. Valdés. Forty-seven-year-old Luz Angélica Torres, who studies business administration and hopes to start her own business after completing her degree, is at the older end of the spectrum.

Ms. Torres—­a mother, a grandmother, and a secretary at the Catholic University of Chile—­had never envisioned returning to the classroom after completing her studies to work as a secretary.

But nearly 30 years later, she saw a newspaper ad for the community college. It struck her as new, as different.

"It gave me the impression of innovation," she says—­exactly the message the college's creators hope to convey.

As the community college's administrators work to build on what they have begun, they see gaining acceptance of their model as their greatest challenge, according to Lorena Paredes Buzeta, the institution's academic director. "It won't be easy," she says.

In Chile, technical careers have generally been perceived as "very close to manual work," says Raúl Atria, a professor of sociology at the University of Chile. "Manual work was undervalued in society."

Instead, students have flocked to high-status careers, like medicine, law, and engineering, oversaturating some professions while leaving other sectors hurting for skilled workers.

By committing to making the program's credits transferable, the Community College of Santiago's administrators are challenging the notion that a technical education is of lower quality than a university one.

And by retaining the term "community college," they distance themselves from the mixed reputation of the country's technical-education centers and institutes.

Erasing the Stigma

But attitudes may be changing. Enrollment in technical-education programs nationally jumped from nearly 120,000 in 2006 to more than 200,000 last year, according to Chile's Ministry of Education.

Though it's too early to tell what factors have played a role in the increase, experts say the stigma associated with technical-level degrees is weakening. A recent study by researchers at the University of Chile compared the earnings of graduates from 26 professional institutes and universities and found that a university degree did not necessarily correspond to a higher salary, reported the national Chilean newspaper La Tercera. In fact, the study's authors concluded that the institutes offer higher rates of return for students who perform poorly on Chile's university entrance exam.

Some higher-education experts add that the turnaround is also very likely an effect of recent presidential administrations, which have stressed the importance of technical education.

In 2001 the government created a scholarship program in which low-income students pursuing technical education could receive up to 500,000 pesos a year. In 2009 the government awarded about 22-billion pesos to more than 55,000 students through the scholarship program, called the Beca Nuevo Milenio, or New Millennium Scholarship.

With the renewed interest in technical education, the community college may have opened its doors at just the right time. "This is the right moment to do it," says Andrés Bernasconi Ramírez, vice rector of Andrés Bello University, one of Chile's largest private universities.


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