Community Colleges and Economic Self-Determination

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about how community colleges are often perceived by the news media and by politicians as simply “engines for ‘work-force development’”—in other words, job-training centers.

The problem, I said, is that people tend to overlook the other important role of community colleges, which is providing a liberal-arts education for nearly half of America’s college graduates.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that the problem goes much deeper than that. It’s not just that government and media types are shortchanging two-year colleges, or failing to give us our due. This isn’t about ego or community-college folks’ whining that they’re misunderstood.

If the vision of two-year colleges as primarily job-training centers is the one that ultimately wins out, I believe that could do irreparable harm not only to our educational system but also to the egalitarian foundations of our democratic society. I’ve often said that one of the best things about community colleges is the opportunity they provide for students to figure out what they want to do in life. In that sense, community colleges are a uniquely American invention.

Other industrialized nations typically employ some sort of “track” system, by which students are funneled early on—perhaps as early as middle school—into either a technical track or a university track, based on test scores and other factors. In other words, the system decides for them, while they’re still children, whether they’re going to be leaders or relegated to worker-bee status.

Not so in the United States. Here students get to decide for themselves whether they want to go to college, go to technical school, or not pursue any postsecondary education at all. They get to decide what profession or vocation they wish to follow, and (theoretically, at least) they can go as far in that chosen field as their abilities and hard work will take them.

Their educational choices may be limited somewhat by test scores, high-school grades, and finances, but in this country, because of our extensive community-college system, practically anyone who wants to go to college can do so. Moreover, at a two-year college, students don’t have to decide which “track” they’re on until about their third semester.

In my 26 years as a community-college professor, I’ve had many students who were in my classes only because their parents told them they needed to go to college. They really had no interest in college, or at least in traditional college, but that sounded better to them than the alternatives, such as moving out of the house and getting a full-time job.

Then one day they were wandering across the campus and noticed that the college offered a program in automotive repair. Or cosmetology. Or construction management. They said to themselves, “Wow, I didn’t know you could study that in college. I’ve always been kind of interested in _________________.” Next thing they knew, those students had figured out what they wanted to do. They suddenly had a direction in life.

Conversely, I have had students—usually older, nontraditional students—who were in college solely to acquire a specific credential, in order to get a particular job or to upgrade their employment. Many times they were taking my English class only because it was required for their program, and they weren’t happy about it. They were probably just as unhappy about having to take history and psychology and biology.

But then a funny thing happened: They discovered that they liked writing. Or history. Or psychology. Or biology. Or all of the above. They learned that they actually enjoyed learning. I’ve had students in this category who went on to earn Ph.D.’s and become professors themselves.

Where else in the world do you find that dynamic? Where else in our educational system? What other sector of American higher education provides students who would otherwise be designated as worker bees—the lower middle class, the poor—with a legitimate shot at upward mobility?

That’s why I’ve always said that community colleges are among the most egalitarian of all American institutions. And the opportunity for economic self-determination is precisely what is imperiled when politicians attempt to redefine community colleges as mere job-training centers.

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