A Golden Hour for Community Colleges

The vast majority of media coverage of higher ed focuses on four-year, residential colleges. As the re-opening debate unfolds this summer and fall, you’ll hear lots of chatter about the fancy-pants universities. Will Berkeley charge full tuition for online classes? If you defer your admission to Harvard for a year, will you lose your spot? Will the take-out-only food at Stanford include my sushi?

What you would never guess from this reporting is that half of all Americans earning a bachelor’s degree today have spent part of their college years at a local community college. While two-year colleges are largely unseen and underappreciated, they are heavily used and well positioned to deliver affordable, valuable education that results in economic growth for individuals and communities. 

Community colleges educate students for jobs in high demand. Half of all nurses in Colorado have been trained at one of 13 community-college campuses in the state. The same institutions trained 90 percent of Colorado’s first responders. They contributed an estimated $6 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2017. The Strada research group found that workforce-development programs run by just one Michigan community college in Grand Rapids added $130 million to that city’s local economy. 

These institutions are vastly less expensive than four-year public or private schools and attract a wider array of students. Three out of ten community-college attendees are the first generation in their family to get higher education, and more than a quarter come from families in poverty. Community colleges do a better job of linking education to specific careers that will increase a student’s job prospects and economic mobility. 

Many do this using digital platforms that allow students great flexibility in how they pursue degrees. Community colleges pioneered online education years before virtual options appeared at most four-year counterparts. Family responsibilities and existing jobs are more easily accommodated.

Donors are showing growing interest in both supporting community colleges directly, and aiding students who attend them. A recent $213,000 grant from the Leonard and Helen Stulman Foundation provides scholarships to train nursing assistants and geriatric nursing assistants at Community College of Baltimore County, Maryland. Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina is benefitting from two grants totaling $500,000 from the PNC Foundation to expand training for pre-K teachers. To help students overcome financial hardships during the coronavirus outbreak, particularly low-income women with children, the Petros family recently made a $500,000 gift to Cuyahoga Community College of Ohio.

Community colleges will serve a vital role in the nation’s recovery from the economic disruption of the coronavirus. By rapidly providing dislocated workers with new occupational credentials, local colleges will speed re-employment, and the rise of fresh industries and careers. As the country focuses on returning jobs to the U.S. that had moved overseas, and strengthening our economic infrastructure, the valuable certificates community colleges provide in manufacturing, construction trades, logistics and production, and other fields will be in high demand. In addition to specific skill training, two-year colleges can provide social and soft-skill remediation needed to pull more Americans into productive work, and increase workforce readiness and digital literacy generally. 

With donor encouragement, U.S. community colleges could be entering a golden hour.  

Tony Mayer is director of economic opportunity programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable.

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