Community colleges have experienced a mixed reputation over their 100-year history. On the one hand, these institutions have been traditionally viewed as the lesser choice in higher education. Other opinions have elevated these schools to the most direct way to train for the job market. Which view is more accurate? Today, the latter appears to be a more prevalent one, particularly in light of the fact that many four-year schools are now trying to capitalize on the same features community colleges have boasted since the very beginning.
Career Training Begins at Community College
Since their inception, community colleges have been focused on vocational training. According to a report at the Times Herald-Record, these schools were originally created in the early part of the 20th century for the sole purpose of getting people into the workforce as quickly as possible. Fraternizing with academics and dabbling in philosophical thought processes were seen as counterproductive in this model of higher education.
This video from the Urban Institute discusses advancement along a career pathway at community college.
While community colleges might have met their goals from a vocational standpoint, their singular focus also may have gained them a reputation as less academic schools than four-year colleges and universities. Those who wanted the true higher education experience would venture into the hallowed halls of those institutions perceived as factories for intellectuals and philosophers. However, when jobs become scarce and industries begin to fizzle, the practical application of higher education becomes much more revered.
Community Colleges Coin a Phrase Now Used by Four-Year Schools
Now we are at the beginning of the 21st-century, and current economic conditions have demanded that many pursuing a higher education do so with a career goal in mind. The Times Herald-Record reports that this means many four-year schools are now embracing the idea of “experiential learning,” a concept touted by community colleges for decades.
“We’re always getting students ready for the world of work with mock interviews, resume reviews, what to wear at interviews,” Petra Wege-Beers, director of the office at careers and counseling at SUNY Orange, told the Times Herald-Record.
In this video from CBS News, Kenneth Craig explores community college programs that advocates argue have long been undervalued.
However, community colleges have always stressed the need for practical work training and experience. In fact, the Times Herald-Record suggests that these institutions practically coined the “experiential learning” concept on their own. However, four-year schools have recently leaped on the work training bandwagon in an effort to attract more students and contribute more effectively to the future workforce at large.
A Greater Need for the Community College Model
There is no doubt that the wares peddled by community colleges for decades are now in higher demand than they have been for generations. According to the Killeen Daily Herald, community colleges in Texas have been the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in the state in recent years. Those exponential jumps in enrollment have been no surprise to Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges.
“If you look, it’s not uncommon to see [community] colleges seeing double-digit growth [percentages] over the past few years,” Johnson told the Killeen Daily Herald.
Johnson attributes the growth in part to students attempting to deal with the effects of a shaky economy, and high school graduates experiencing sticker shock at the price of a four-year education today.
The Value of a Community College Education
Affordability is a cornerstone of a community college education and continues to be one of the most important features students look for when they are shopping for an institution of higher education. As reports of students graduating from four years of school with monumental amounts of debt continue to surface, those getting ready to enter the world of higher education are looking to do so without overburdening themselves financially with student loans after graduation. Community colleges offer an affordable option.
Another valuable feature of community colleges is that of perceived practicality. Students who want an education that prepares them for life beyond college are now turning to community colleges more frequently for that type of training. The Utica Observer-Dispatch states that “the community college movement has grown up around the goal of providing high-quality, comprehensive programs that help young people and adults of all ages develop skills for the workplace.”
This video from Idaho Public TV discusses career paths at college.
Filling the Skills Gap
Practicality and applicability become even more essential in the world of higher education as the concept of a skills gap continues to emerge. Employers refer to this term as the lag between what is taught in colleges and the skills employers need to put prospective employees to work. The skills gap is one that continues to widen in this age of technology, particularly in fields like cybersecurity, engineering, health care and green technology.
Filling the skills gap is a role that community colleges fall into naturally. By partnering with area employers, these schools are in prime position to provide precise training needed to fill jobs in their area. Practicality and applicability have never been more important in building the workforce of the 21st century, and community colleges are in the position to take the lead in addressing the skills gap once again.
While community colleges lead higher education in many ways, there are still areas where they can improve. Ivy Tech President Thomas J. Snyder told the Tribune Star that community college must focus on productivity by cutting costs and finding new revenue streams. They must improve outcomes through high expectations for students. Finally, community colleges must work together to share ideas and practices that produce the best results. These elements will ensure that community colleges continue to lead the higher education realm into their next century of educating the United States.
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