Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Community Colleges are an Essential Piece of "Building Back Better"

Fifty years of growing inequality, "savage inequalities" in the K-12 pipeline, college enrollment down for a decade, millions of students without the requisite skills to succeed in college or at work, a student loan debt bubble, fewer good jobs at the end of the pipeline,  a looming enrollment cliff in 2026, and existential threats such as climate chaos in front of us.  It's a daunting series of tasks, thinking how we can improve the situation.  But in my opinion, it is possible if many of these pieces are dealt with honestly and openly. 

In building back better, President Biden's Department of Education must look objectively and yet imaginatively at community colleges, and how these institutions can serve the needs of the People, their society, and the world.  This won’t be easy.  

US community colleges have been hit hard by the College Meltdown, with dramatic losses in enrollment and revenues over the last decade, and their mission has become more complicated over time, with more than a half century of growing inequality, decades of working-class wage stagnation, and the hollowing out of America.  Community college certificate completion, transfer, and graduation rates have been historically abysmal. 

[Image below: Community college enrollment has dropped dramatically since 2010, from 10.9 million attending in 2010 to 8.2 million in 2018. Graph generated using the IPEDS tools. ]

One essential challenge for US community colleges in “building back better” is working to remedy structural and historical injustice in the K-12 system.  US K-12 education is fraught with “savage inequalities,” which has led to tens of millions of its citizens unprepared for the new economy.  This leaves poorly funded, understaffed, and stigmatized colleges tasked with remediating millions of students who desperately need language, math, science, and critical thinking skills.  While many working people would be better by starting at a community college and not incurring so much debt, the prestige of a 4-year school draws them away from smarter choices

With support from local businesses and non-profits, and support for local start ups, community colleges have the potential to do more as economic engines.  Better-resourced schools are already doing this. 

State universities, in New Jersey for example, have also partnered more closely with community colleges, giving these schools for the working class more credibility. 

Community colleges do offer programs in important jobs, such as certified nursing assistant (CNA), but many of these high-demand jobs are low paying. Programs like that need to be free and should even offer a stipend. In other cases, community colleges don't have particular courses in lucrative working-class professions (e.g. diesel mechanics), and something needs to be done. We also need to imagine, in detail, how community colleges will be part of any Green New Deal, replacing diesel mechanics with jobs that create a sustainable and more humane world.