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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

Given this anxiety, and the accepted connection between education and economic growth, it is perhaps no surprise that many observers seeking to ease our economic concerns have turned their attention to the question of how we can expand educational opportunities for all Americans. What many don’t realize, however, is that an often overlooked segment of the nation’s education system—community colleges—has a vital role to play in getting us back on track. They can play a crucial role in helping to re-train workers and address the shortage of skilled workers in growing fields such as information technology, energy, and healthcare.

Helping provide a bridge to distressed workers in the current economy is today’s challenge, but community colleges are at the epicenter of many urgent long-term education and economic issues as well: educational equity and access, workforce training and flexibility, and improving confidence in academic quality and standards. As the importance of these forces continues to grow, so will the relevance of the vital but strained community college system.

Recently, the State Higher Education Executive Officers organization (SHEEO) issued a report forecasting that the U.S. must produce one million more college graduates a year to meet the expanded needs of the U.S. economy by the year 2025. [Editor’s note: see the article by the State Higher Education Executive Officers in the September/October 2008 Change for a discussion of this recommendation.] The only realistic path to that outcome goes through our community college system. It is incumbent upon policymakers, educators, the business community, and community colleges themselves to understand the immensity of that challenge. We must ensure that the system’s capabilities expand—and that student outcomes improve—as we seek to improve our global competitiveness in the decades ahead.

In the short term, meeting the needs of newly unemployed workers is surely the most urgent challenge. In the long term, however, addressing those presented by globalization is the most complex. The costs and benefits to the United States of a worldwide economy are hotly debated in university economics departments and the op-ed pages of our leading newspapers. But the impact is felt most acutely in offices and on shop floors across the country. The substantial benefits of globalization to the U.S. economy are clear. At the same time, there are very real human costs as our economy pivots away from traditional industries to new, knowledge-based industries. Policymakers are constantly torn between the benefits of globalization while acknowledging the dislocations experienced by workers whose jobs have migrated to China, India, and elsewhere.

Community colleges can play a crucial role in helping prepare workers to become competitive in our evolving global economy. And don’t forget—the higher education officers organization is predicting the need for one million more workers with highly technical skills. So we need to address the twin challenges of re-training older workers and improving training for one million more students entering the post-secondary world.

But there are models for doing so. Take the Prosperity Partnership in the Puget Sound area in Washington. Recognizing that globalization allows companies to choose where they locate jobs, dozens of local chambers of commerce throughout the Puget Sound region, in coordination with local community colleges, four-year schools, and employers, are creating high-skill, high-wage jobs through joint training. The partnership is crafting curricula to meet specific workplace demands and providing both job placement and business recruitment services. This fruitful collaboration is just one example of the role that business-education partnerships can play in meeting the challenges of globalization.

Still, a worker without a job is often hard-pressed to pay even for the relatively modest costs of retooling at a local community college. Policymakers at all levels of government, working closely with local businesses, must create incentives for those struggling with the dislocations of globalization to gain the new skills they’ll need.

Community colleges also have an important role to play in dealing with educational inequality. Community colleges offer extraordinarily important opportunities for low-income and minority students—the groups from which our additional one million college graduates must come. They allow for flexible scheduling and are located within close proximity to where students work. And, unlike many four-year schools, their easy accessibility—in terms of cost, admissions requirements, and geographic location—means that they are less likely to create cultural and social barriers that are often intimidating to first-generation college-goers.

Simply put, in a country as diverse and complex as ours, we must rely on a system of affordable, accessible community colleges to serve as gateways to further education, quality job opportunities, and social and cultural assimilation. Community colleges are perfectly suited to play this important function. Indeed, over the years, many analysts have sought to determine why, if our pre-K-12 system routinely measures up as mediocre on international assessments, the American higher education system is