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Community colleges focus on wrong barriers

Less than a year ago, Connecticut combined its state colleges and universities – including its community colleges – into one system. At the time of the merger, the goal was to reduce the cost of administration and develop a more coherent approach to higher education.

In a recent piece that appeared on CNBC, Connecticut governor Ned Lamont said, “We’re doing everything we can to make education less expensive to start with.” No one will argue that the cost of education is too low, so in that regard, reducing the cost of education is a “step-one” strategy.

Recently, there has been a near-exclusive focus on reducing or eliminating the cost of community college education in an effort to remove barriers to higher education. To date, the success rate of this approach falls somewhere between “Meh” and “Well…”

If one were serious about troubleshooting the “problem” with a community college education, cost would not be a productive starting point. Community colleges typically cost only a fraction of what traditional four-year universities cost. If you were looking to reduce the cost of a college education, a community college would be a starting point, not a sticking point.

There is little recognition on the part of well-meaning politicians that not everyone attends community college with the intention to transfer to a four-year university. Or that once a person enters the workforce, it is hard to find the time to go back to school, even when going back to school is the “right” solution.

People can make money, but they cannot make time.

Second, the result of going back to school must be superior than the person’s current situation. The result must be a higher-wage job, a better work environment, a clear advancement path, a more stable employment picture – whatever the case might be.

Community colleges need to focus on community needs

And those results must be evaluated in the context of the local economy. “Will the job I can get enable me to live here?” “Will I need to move to align my salary with my living expenses?” “With a new job, can I afford to…”

Enrolling in a community college is NOT about how much it costs to get in. It’s about how much time it takes to get through a program and the economic benefit that accrues to the successful graduate.

This is demonstrated again and again by every state (including Michigan) that has reduced the cost of community college to $0. The community colleges still struggle to increase enrollment. That’s because the programs they offer no longer make sense in the current economic environment.

Transfer programs – which community colleges have invested heavily in – also don’t work well for community college students. Community college students who enroll at a university often find themselves unprepared for the academic rigor of their programs and their back-breaking cost.

University professors might have a genuine interest in teaching. They may view teaching as either a “necessary nuisance” or an outright impediment to their research. Students are often left to learn on their own. If community college transfer students – who have come from an environment where their instructors were invested in student success – cannot make the leap to self-teaching, they’re not likely to succeed at a university.

And (after accumulating excruciating debt that they cannot get rid of), most community college transfer students don’t.

So where is the community college? It offers programs that don’t let most students earn enough to improve their standards of living, and programs that don’t allow most students to transfer to a university and complete a four-year degree.

If you were thinking about enrolling, which pathway would you prefer?

We need better institutional administrators

The responsibility for this sorry circumstance falls squarely at the feet of community college administrators who:

  • have no viable strategies to increase their institution’s enrollment
  • can’t function without a raft of consultants, vice presidents, and third-party service providers
  • find it much easier to maintain existing programs than develop new ones
  • do not develop programs that keep pace with the area’s cost-of-living
  • do not develop programs that build the area’s economic capacity
  • green-light non-degree training programs that can’t create stable, high-wage employment
  • invest educational tax dollars into non-academic endeavors
  • fail to maintain and upgrade the facilities
  • are relying on the next recession to bail them out

Community college administrators have rendered their institutions nearly powerless to make meaningful changes in the economic futures of their students and their communities. We should be asking ourselves why we’re continuing to tolerate this level of sheer incompetence.

Photo Credit: Ramon Araujo , via Flickr