Can Community Colleges Cure the Economy?

Can Community Colleges Cure the Economy?
Learn about recent government recommendations for community colleges and their role in our nation's competitiveness.

Do community colleges hold the key to curing an ailing U.S. economy? That is one conclusion in the Report of the National Commission on Community Colleges entitled "Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America's Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges" (the Report). The Commission took a comprehensive look at the fundamental role of community colleges in maximizing our nation's ability to compete in a global economy. The Commission's findings and recommendations are discussed in this article.


In 2005, the College Board established the Center for Innovative Thought (the Center) to identify challenges to America's education system and recommend solutions. Convinced that community colleges are the nation's overlooked asset, the Center formed the National Commission on Community Colleges to investigate means for improving and expanding the role of community colleges in the future. The Commission is composed of chair Augustine P. Gallego, Chancellor Emeritus of San Diego Community College District, and ten community college presidents or immediate past presidents. The Commission released its Report in January 2008. The Report looks at the present state of community colleges, identifies numerous challenges facing the U.S., and recommends taking action that will place community colleges at the forefront of meeting these challenges. The College Board applauded the Report and pledged to contribute the Board's expertise in implementing the Report's recommendations.

This video reports on the National Symposium on 21st Century Community Colleges held in New Delhi, India in 2011.

Present Status of Community Colleges

The 1,202 community colleges in the U.S. enroll approximately 11.6 million credit and non-credit students. The average age of the community college student is 29. About 34 percent of community college students are members of minority groups. Most community college students also have either part-time or full-time employment. Community colleges annually award 550,000 associate degrees and 270,000 certificates.

Community colleges are a source of economic growth because they provide an educated and skilled workforce that improves the quality of life for individual students, communities, and the nation. Community college students are often the first member of their families to attend college. The community college education and training offer these students economic opportunities. Community colleges also prepare students to pursue baccalaureate degrees; one-half of students who are awarded baccalaureate degrees are prior community college students. Communities benefit because community colleges produce 80 percent of first responders and 50 percent of new nurses and other health-care workers. According to the Report, notwithstanding the enormous contributions of community colleges, they are generally overlooked in planning and support for education at the national level.

Note: Some well-known Americans got their starts at community colleges, including astronaut Eileen Collins and newsman Jim Lehrer. Filmmaker George Lucas attended Modesto Junior College in California and business executive H. Ross Perot attended Texarkana Junior College in Texas.

Community Colleges Face Obstacles in Fulfilling their Mission

Community colleges are expected to fulfill many roles, including job training and retraining, certification of proficiency in various professions and skills, providing affordable higher education, and preparing graduates to transfer to four-year institutions. There is a discrepancy between the many roles community colleges are expected to play and the resources made available to them to accomplish their missions. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, federal and state sources accounted for only 7 percent and 38 percent, respectively, of total funding for community colleges in 2007.

To make ends meet, community colleges have been forced to raise tuition and fees, delay updating or building facilities, delay purchasing updated equipment, and replace full-time faculty with less effective part-time faculty. All these steps conflict with the educational mission of community colleges in making quality education universally available. For example, community colleges are the only hope for some low-income students to obtain job training or higher education. Even a small increase in tuition and fees could make the difference between future economic prosperity or continued poverty for low-income individuals.

Although community colleges are effectively providing access to higher education, there is little data by which to evaluate the ultimate success of their students. Researchers have found that only about half of community college students complete a certificate or degree within eight years of their enrollment. Thus, while community colleges are good at getting students in the door, they have not adequately monitored what happens to them after they enroll. Recent studies have revealed that many community colleges do not have the technology or internal research capacity to track students' progress. As a result, important decisions are made based on factors other than an analysis of relevant data.

This video from reports on challenges facing community colleges.

Report Recommends National, State, and Community College Input

The National Commission on Community Colleges proposes a new partnership among national leaders, state officials, and community colleges which would "put community colleges at the forefront of the effort to enhance American communities and ensure national competitiveness." The Report concludes with three recommendations -- one recommendation addressed to each member of the partnership.

The first recommendation is addressed to the federal government. The Report urges Congress to take the lead in expanding community colleges by enacting the Community College Competitiveness Act of 2008 (CCCA 2008). The goal of the CCCA 2008 is to "bring community colleges fully into the twenty-first century and allow them to respond to the challenges facing the nation's workforce." The new legislation should address the following points:

  • State that it is U.S. policy to encourage universal public education through at least 14 years of schooling as the minimum educational requirement
  • Create a new Department of Labor program centering on workforce development through community colleges with the goal of providing skills training and education necessary to succeed globally
  • Expand federal financial assistance by authorizing: 1) Pell grants for community college students equal to 70 percent of the average cost of attending a public four-year institution; and 2) Stafford loans for students enrolled for at least one-third of a full course load
  • Encourage construction and modernization of community college facilities and technology through a matching grant program with the states
  • Increase funds for guidance and counseling in high schools and community colleges to provide adequate assistance for all students, including immigrants, non-English speakers, and first-generation college students
  • Commit to a "culture of evidence" by implementing a nationwide program to enable community colleges to evaluate their students' progress and outcomes

The Commission's second recommendation concerns the responsibilities of the state vis-?-vis their community colleges. According to the Report, because states are more involved than the federal government with financing community colleges, the success of community colleges depends on the willingness of state officials "to advocate strenuously for their needs." Specific recommendations for state action include:

  • With local community college input, states should develop a plan for sufficient, sustainable funding for community colleges.
  • In response to the increasing demand for graduates with baccalaureate degrees and the goal of increasing the percentage of minority students with baccalaureate degrees, states should encourage close cooperation between community colleges and four-year institutions to facilitate transfers of community college students to four-year institutions.
  • States should encourage secondary schools and community colleges to develop a more standardized curriculum to accommodate students who move from one school to another.

Community colleges themselves are the focus of the Commission's third recommendation. The Report urges community colleges to increase their accountability by developing ways to measure success in accomplishing their various educational and training roles. Specific recommendations include:

  • Community college leaders should work with national organizations, such as the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees, to develop criteria to measure productivity.
  • Community college leaders should respond to the national workforce demand for increased associate and baccalaureate degrees, in part by increasing degree production for students in racial and low-income groups who have traditionally been underrepresented in post-secondary education.

Reaction to the Report

The reaction to the Report from the community college world has been positive. The American Association of Community Colleges commended the report and concurs with its recommendations. George R. Boggs, President, and CEO stated that the recommendations provide an "informed blueprint for policymakers to follow in helping community colleges realize their roles as linchpins of a productive resourceful citizenry." Boggs noted that the Report explains not only why, but also how, we must invest in community colleges. Association of Community College Trustees President and CEO J. Noah Brown congratulated the Commission and pledged that the Association would work with the College Board and others to bring about the recommendations in the Report. Several community college presidents have been quoted in articles as supporting the Report's recommendations.

The Report has been well covered in local and community college papers and websites and has received some national coverage. Thus, the Report has provided an occasion to remind communities about the importance of community colleges and to emphasize the need for their support.

This video reports on key issues facing community colleges.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost two-thirds of new jobs created between 2004 and 2014 will be filled by workers with some post-secondary education. Community colleges will play a crucial role in producing a degreed workforce because they award associate degrees and some baccalaureate degrees and prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions to obtain baccalaureate degrees. Community colleges also certify skills and conduct job training and retraining programs. Community colleges must be adequately funded to fulfill the critical role that they stand to play in creating a globally competitive workforce. The Report of the National Commission on Community Colleges serves as a roadmap by which federal and state governments and community colleges can work together to ensure the future health and effectiveness of community colleges.

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