For generations, America's community colleges were seen as second-class members of the higher education community, or where the ill-prepared and marginal high school graduates should go. Too many traditional academicians from prestigious colleges and universities didn't see these students as an academic fit for their tradition-bound campuses, or as likely candidates for graduate and professional degrees like the sciences, law and medicine.
In the years that followed, more and more two-year college students showed their collective might as the heart of the nation's working force, as a segment of education to be reckoned with across the country. Community colleges now serve nearly half of the undergraduates in the United States. Four-year schools count on them for transfers, a key part of their base and stability.
In the past five years, the perceived value of a degree from a two-year college has soared, as leaders from business, industry and government lamented the fact that there weren't enough skilled and trained individuals to fill well-paying jobs. Suffering from a stagnant and diminished economy, dim prospects for an early recovery, and millions of jobs that couldn't be filled with the right men and women, President Obama turned to the community colleges for accelerated relief, for quantifiable results and workable educational programs.
He asked the two-year colleges to work directly with the private sector to tailor education for immediate job needs; in return, the federal government and the private sector delivered increases in federal and private dollars to advance the cause. Suddenly, the tables were turned and in an unprecedented way: community colleges bathed in the newfound attention, while their four-year brethren were targeted by a chorus of critics who questioned their fundamental value.
One of the selected few that gained national notoriety was Trident Technical College, South Carolina's second-largest institution of higher learning with some 18,000 students. Boeing hailed the two-year school when it established an assembly line for the massive new Dreamliner, bringing with it more than 1,600 jobs and the promise of another line and a large research component. A total of 4,000 jobs are possible. Quite similar success stories from business and industry dot the countryside.
In order to further advance the community college movement, the colleges must retain their open access mission but couple with it strategies to help students complete a certificate, a degree, or transfer. Their stunning success is attributable to their open access mission. Now they need to focus on the equally important objective of student completion.
Community colleges should provide greater academic direction to students when they enroll. They should continue to improve developmental education, since over 50 percent of all students who enter community colleges need to complete such a course. Community colleges should continue to keep overhead low and tuition and fees reasonable for students and families. And remember that community colleges remain the least well funded among the public colleges and universities.
Community colleges must continue to demonstrate to government leaders that investment in these unique institutions will pay by helping students earn degrees and obtain jobs.
Budig is a former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas.