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Community colleges miss the mark

There’s an interesting op-ed that appeared in the Seattle Times today that unintentionally encapsulates what’s wrong with community colleges. The purpose of the piece is to encourage the Washington state legislature to devote additional funding to community college. In the authors’ opinion, that will help address the “worker shortage.”

You can read the entire piece here.

First, the “worker shortage” isn’t caused by lack of educational opportunities in the workforce. If your business is starving for workers, try raising your starting salary. If that doesn’t work, keep raising it until you start getting résumés.

“Industry relies on community colleges to develop and train our workforce in critical areas.”

This is the second problem. It’s not really the community college’s sacred responsibility to train workers on behalf of employers. The community college’s job is to educate people. Local employers are third-party beneficiaries in this relationship, since they pay neither the student nor the college for any services they benefit from.

“Training a skilled workforce is costly, and it doesn’t happen without intentional investments. Experienced teachers, equipment and consumables can be expensive.”

Yes. Training a skilled workforce is expensive, and yes, it requires intentional investment. So, where are the employers here? Where is their intentional investment? What contributions – aside from taxes – have these employers made to ensure that the community college is well enough resourced to train workers on their behalf? And before you say, “Taxes!” – everyone who owns property in the community college district pays taxes. (If I were cynical, this would be the point where I would say something about catering to employers is corporate welfare at its finest.)

Low pay emblematic of problems at community colleges

“Community colleges are losing outstanding faculty members, staff and potential applicants to better-paying public schools, private employers and four-year universities. Low pay has been an issue for a long time, but the consequences are more severe as institutions work to teach and serve students derailed by the pandemic.”

Sure. But the “low pay” argument doesn’t apply only to community college faculty and staff. Would-be students are also bypassing community colleges because their degree programs don’t result in jobs with salaries that are high enough to make ends meet. This comes right back to the employers who are wailing about not being able to find employees. Employers want trained employees; however, they don’t want to pay them living wages.

Every 2-3 years, community colleges should “retire” academic programs that do not lead to living wage jobs. By continually getting rid of programs that lead to poverty wages, community colleges can begin to return value to the students.

That’s the next problem with this op-ed. Never does it take into consideration the perspective of the students. Employers think that investing in community colleges will somehow make students magically appear. There are countless low-wage jobs available today for the asking. If a community college degree leads back to low-wage work, why bother going?

This is especially important because it is the student who pays for an education. The community college owes their students a duty of loyalty. Instead of taking this relationship seriously, the community college looks past their paying customers to better meet the needs of a non-contributing beneficiary.

THAT is why community college classrooms are empty. They’ll stay empty until that changes.

Photo Credit: zQ , via Flickr