The Community Liberal-Arts College

Excuse me for finding the cloud amid the silver lining, but I’m not entirely comfortable with all the attention community colleges have been getting lately.

Sure, it’s nice to hear the president and other national figures talking about community colleges. It’s gratifying to see the articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, publications that until recently hadn’t paid much attention to two-year colleges. But what they’re actually saying about us is a little disturbing.

President Obama, for instance, has stated that, “In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs—or keep those jobs on our shores—without the training offered by community colleges.”

Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago and the president’s former chief of staff, recently announced a plan to “convert the [Chicago] community-college system to a skills-based education.

And those are just a couple of examples. Clearly, this country’s policy makers and opinion leaders view community colleges primarily, perhaps solely, as engines for “work-force development,” by which they mean job training.

Unfortunately, in taking and propagating that view, they overlook another, equally important role that community colleges play: providing a liberal-arts education for nearly half of the nation’s college graduates.

By “liberal arts,” I mean specifically the arts and humanities, the physical and life sciences, the social sciences, and mathematics. University students once spent four years immersed in those subjects, choosing a profession only after acquiring a comprehensive education.

But over time, professional training has come to occupy more and more of the traditional four-year course of study, with the liberal arts ultimately being relegated (at least for non-liberal-arts majors) to the first two years—the so-called core curriculum.

The core curriculum, of course, is what community colleges offer students who plan to transfer to four-year institutions. And that’s why those of us who teach in liberal-arts fields at two-year colleges tend to see ourselves as providing the first two years of a university education.

With good reason, as it turns out. A new study by the National Student Clearinghouse has found that 45 percent of students who earned four-year degrees in 2010-11 attended a community college at some point. As I said, that’s nearly half—and does anyone seriously believe the trend will reverse itself anytime soon?

Those who value the liberal arts—in government, in education, in media, in business and industry—should recognize this as a sobering wake-up call. No one is suggesting that community colleges don’t play a key role in training the work force. Of course they do.

But as the NSC study shows, we’re not just churning out workers—we’re also developing future leaders. And a generation from now, we could well be providing a liberal-arts foundation for more than half the nation’s teachers, lawyers, medical professionals, and business people.

Return to Top