Putting the Community Back in College

public croppedCommunity colleges have been much in the news since President Obama proposed free tuition for millions of students. This plan isn’t cheap and states will have to change their spending habits to reap the benefits of expanded community college for all.  They’ll need to invest considerable sums to both match the President’s proposal, and reverse historic declines in state funding so that they have the capacity to serve millions of new students.

But why should states invest in community colleges instead of relying on for-profit schools to fill the gaps, as they have done for the past decade?

Community colleges train students for much lower tuition than for-profit schools.  Students can get a comparable (or better) education for a fraction of the cost, leading to much lower rates of student debt.  This justifies some measure of state investment, if only to keep the scourges of high debt burden and default from ruining the lives of local students.

Community colleges also offer community benefits that for-profit schools do not. 

These institutions are not just “tickets to the middle class” for individual students.  They are also the cornerstones of vibrant communities.  In a forthcoming paper, I argue that community benefits extend even beyond just an increased local tax base and more well-informed electorate.  Like what, you ask?

1.  Community colleges offer more than just two-year degrees.

  • Non credit workforce education and training, including courses that help a worker climb a career ladder over time, transition from one job to another, acquire small business skills, and engage in continuing education required for professional licensure;
  • College-level courses for high school students, especially in STEM subjects that require lab equipment that low-income high schools don’t have;
  • English as a Second Language courses that help to integrate immigrants into communities;
  • Remedial basic skills courses for students who were poorly served by the K-12 system;
  • Recreational courses that improve the quality of life for adult residents of a community;
  • Social services, such as parenting classes for prospective foster parents or teen parents.

2.  Community college campuses are more than classrooms.

  • Places for members of the community to come together and share the local knowledge, art and identity that enriches our lives. Public art, theaters, gardens, playing fields, swimming pools, conference centers, and planetariums used by school children, members of the public and students;
  • Collaborations with cooperative extension programs that provide education (such as incubators for small farms that serve local markets with fresh food) and public outreach on issues such as nutrition and pest management;
  • Local college sports teams.

3.  Community college teachers do more than teach.

For-profit schools brag that their instructors do nothing but teach. By focusing on standardized information transfer from the instructor to the individual, for-profits eliminate the production of knowledge from the mission of a college.  Why is this a problem?  The teachers who train medical assistants, welders, child care providers and law enforcement personnel have a great deal of knowledge to offer about how to care for patients, rebuild the skilled trades, provide early childhood education or improve the day-to-day operations of the justice system.  An elitist understanding of what knowledge is, and which research is worth supporting and disseminating, misses how teachers in career and vocational education programs have situated knowledge and skills that can contribute to collective memory, innovation and solving the problems of our times.

It might be possible to replace each of these “social goods” that community colleges provide—at an additional cost, and with new infrastructure. Their loss, taken together, degrades the quality of life in our communities. For-profit schools, despite receiving billions of investment from federal taxpayers in the form of student aid, are not going to provide them.  Our community colleges allow us to reap the rewards twice– once when we invest in our students, and again when we strengthen our communities.

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