The Corner

Education

On the Value of Community Colleges

When I was young, community college were snickered at as places for kids who had goofed off in high school. Going to one was a mark of shame.

That negative assessment has been changing. “Real” colleges have gotten prodigiously expensive and the curriculum has turned into a nasty brew of leftist ideology. The supposed “great investment” in a BA is now much in doubt.

Also, community colleges have been picking up their game, offering solid basic skills and career training. North Carolina has recently installed a new man at the helm of its community-college system, Peter Hans, and in today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins interviews him.

Asked what the system is doing to improve and expand workforce training, Hans replied,

The investment that the state is making in the short-term workforce training programs will go a long way towards a funding parity between our curriculum and continuing education programs — which will provide additional incentives for our colleges to focus on those programs to the benefit of students and businesses alike.

The UNC system pays lip service to preparing students for the working world, but the community colleges evidently take that more seriously.

Specifically, the community colleges focus on cooperation with business to create useful programs and credentials. Hans states,

Those industry credentials are highly valuable programs because if students are able to obtain them, they’re very likely to land a job quickly. And that may be undervalued in some quarters, but it’s essential if we’re going to respond to what is essentially an economy in a permanent state of disruption. There is a need for training, and retraining, lifelong learning, people starting new careers, and the addition of new skills — all of that is only going to increase in importance in the future, particularly if half of the predictions about artificial intelligence are true. I think the action is going to be in the partnership between the community colleges and the business community.

To most educates, the business community is a backward, hostile presence that has to be tolerated. Not so with Hans and the community colleges.

Watkins concludes by asking Hans about the possibility of having community colleges expand to four-year degrees. I’m pleased that he doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that sort of educational arms race, stating, “I’d like to see us, the community colleges, be more like us rather than be more like 4-year institutions.”

Some 15 years ago, I saw data showing that a rather large percentage of community-college students (around 20 percent) already had earned four-year degrees and were enrolling in them to get some useful skills. I don’t know that that percentage is today, but I have a feeling that more students are going to community colleges first, bypassing the high cost of “real” colleges.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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