The Good That Community Colleges Do, Part 2

We seem to constantly have to defend ourselves to people who have no idea what we do or how we do it


June 04, 2014

A comment that followed the first essay in this two-part series sums up nicely the reason I’m writing it: "I find it a bit irritating," wrote one reader, "that there is such little understanding of the value and opportunity provided … by community colleges."

Indeed. And yet that deficiency appears common among higher-education professionals and, especially, policy makers. Community colleges, it seems, are constantly having to defend themselves to people who have no idea what those colleges do or how they do it, and who often evaluate their worth using criteria designed to assess four-year campuses.

The truth is, much of what community colleges do is difficult to measure empirically and must therefore be explained to key stakeholders like state education officials, legislators, and policy makers. I can only hope they’re reading this. In Part 1, I focused on the ways that community colleges help people. This month I’d like to talk about what they do for the surrounding cities and towns.

Points of access. In April, The Chronicle reported on a new study on "The Effects of Rurality on College Access and Choice," which found that students in rural areas are less likely to go to college. Those who do go to college, the study said, "are more likely to choose two-year institutions"—as if that were a bad thing.

Perhaps rather than wringing our hands over the fact that some students can’t attend four-year institutions, we ought to be grateful that community colleges exist for those students. Because if people have access to a community college, then they have access to college. Community colleges are colleges. And the authors of the study are correct in suggesting that they are sometimes the only colleges to which residents have ready access.

That’s not just true in rural areas, by the way. Community colleges can also be found in many urban neighborhoods where students can’t easily get to a four-year campus. With the local two-year college right down the street, they can walk to class rather than having to take a bus or live away from home. That’s a huge advantage for untold thousands of students, and the only reason that many of them are able to go to college at all.

The two-year college where I teach sits in a sprawling suburb, where the nearest state university is at least 20 miles away. Students who don’t want (or can’t afford) to make that drive in Atlanta traffic come to us. Students at nearby high schools who wish to take dual-enrollment courses come to us. College kids home for the summer, or home temporarily after "flunking out," come to us. If we weren’t here, taking college courses would suddenly become a much greater hardship, even for some relatively affluent students.

For decades, community colleges across the country have made going into underserved areas something of a specialty, opening branch campuses in remote locations, teaching night classes at local high schools and community centers, offering distance learning in various formats. In many cases, they form partnerships with four-year institutions so that students can go on to earn bachelor’s degrees. Some community colleges have even gotten into the bachelor’s-degree business themselves.

The point is: One of the best things that community colleges do for their communities, often with little or no recognition, is to provide access to higher education for populations that wouldn’t otherwise have it.

Community repositories. I gave a lot of thought to the heading for this section, looking for a phrase that would encapsulate all the many ways in which two-year colleges serve as focal points for their surrounding towns and cities.

I thought of "community center," but of course that term has other connotations. In many communities, the local two-year college is indeed a center—for the arts and performing arts, for science and business, for athletics and fitness. There are plenty of places across the country where people would rarely get to see a play or an orchestra, attend a college-level sporting event, find an inexpensive gym, or attend a seminar on starting a small business if it weren’t for the local community college.

But community colleges aren’t just places for local residents to go; faculty and staff members also become emissaries to the local community. In many parts of the country, the best-educated people around, the most knowledgeable on a wide range of topics, work at the community college. When a civic club or church group needs a speaker, or the high school needs judges for a science fair, or the senior center needs someone to teach pottery, or the garden club needs a botanist, they all go to the local community college.

Call it community outreach if you like, but this is another key element of their mission that community colleges, and the people who work there, enthusiastically embrace.

Learning laboratories for academe. Community colleges are not graduate schools of education—the sort of places where important research discoveries are made or theories about learning are developed. But two-year colleges are often the places where discoveries and theories about teaching are most enthusiastically greeted, as well as the places where they are initially, and perhaps primarily, put into practice.

Teaching is our mission. As faculty members, we are constantly looking for new and better classroom strategies. The vast majority of professional-development opportunities on our campuses have to do with how to improve teaching. More than any other type of institution, community colleges have embraced the teaching-and-learning movement and perfected online learning (insofar as it can be perfected).

By testing classroom innovations, using hundreds of thousands of live subjects every year, community colleges provide a wealth of data for the rest of the education community—including those graduate schools of education—regarding what actually works and what doesn’t work.

Work-force developers. On more than one occasion, I’ve objected to the perception that two-year colleges exist primarily to provide "work-force development," by which people usually mean technical degrees. That characterization, I’ve long believed, overlooks the vital role that community colleges play in teaching core academic courses to students who plan to transfer to four-year institutions. A recent study found that, among American university graduates in 2010 and 2011, just under half attended a two-year college at some point. That means community colleges now provide the liberal-arts foundation for a growing number of our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, and business leaders.

That said, community colleges do perform an indispensable service for their regions by offering courses, degrees, and certificates in high-demand technical fields like information technology, health science, and construction management. In addition, they often play a vital and unique role in offering highly specialized training targeted at specific industries. If a manufacturer builds a new plant in town, business leaders can always count on the nearest community college to step up and provide the courses necessary to train or retrain workers.

That obviously benefits those workers, but it also benefits communities by helping them attract industry and then provide those companies with skilled workers.

Economic engines. Given the role that they play in work-force development, and the simple fact that they now enroll roughly a third of all college students nationwide—which means they have to employ a lot of people to teach and support those students—community colleges are obviously vital to their local economies. And when I say "vital," in this case, that’s not hyperbole.

Take my institution, Georgia Perimeter College. It’s moderately large for a two-year campus—around 23,000 students—and located in a thriving metropolitan area that also includes more than a dozen four-year institutions. According to state data, my college had an economic impact in 2012 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) of $774-million, providing more than 7,200 jobs. I’ve worked at a handful of community colleges, and two of them, one in a small city and the other in a rural area, were the largest employers in their region. That is not uncommon.

Without the local community college, what would those regions do? How would they replace all those jobs? Where would their kids—and for that matter, their adults—go to college? Where would residents go to find subject-matter experts, or to watch a play, or to attend a seminar? What would attract industry to an area that could not promise a trained work force?

No doubt that’s what a commencement speaker I once heard meant when he said that if community colleges didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent them. Fortunately they do exist. For without them, many communities would be far, far poorer places.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.