The community college and the public good

One of the most successful and productive educational institutions in our nation is the community college. Begun in 1906 in Joliet, Illinois, with only six students, the idea of the community college spread rapidly throughout America.

Today, these colleges enroll more than 12.3 million students in 1,108 colleges. This represents 45 percent of all undergraduate students in higher education. Aside from the cost to the student, there is an annual cost of more than $38.2 billion in federal, state and local taxes contributed to community colleges.

The natural question arises: Is this large expenditure of public funds justified? Can it be demonstrated that the community college contributes to the public good to this extent?

One obvious contribution to the public good is the increased personal income resulting from a community college education. The average annual income of someone with only a high school diploma is $35,256. Someone who completes an associate degree from a community college earns an average annual income of $41,496. The natural result is additional taxes paid from these earnings and increased productivity in the workforce.

The respected EMSI, which has done more than 1,200 studies of the economic impact of education, did an extensive analysis in 2012 of the economic impact of American community colleges. They concluded that our national economy receives a total of $809 billion in additional annual income as result of the community colleges.

But I am convinced that the contribution of the community colleges reaches much beyond such financial measures.

Access for all

The community college serves millions of students who otherwise would not receive a college education. The very foundation of our country expressed in the Declaration of Independence is that “all men are created equal.” Basically, this expresses the foundational principle that equal opportunity should be for all.

Yet the community college is the only institution of higher education that practices open enrollment. This means that the student with a mediocre high school record can attend, even though that door would be closed for that student at most universities.

This article comes from the current issue of AACC’s Community College Journal. Read it online today.

Furthermore, a community college education is provided at a reasonable cost. The average annual tuition at a public community college is $3,430. The same cost at four-year public institutions is $9,410. This reasonable cost provides opportunity for students from low-income families. And the community college has proven attractive to students of all backgrounds.

The truth of the democratic nature of the community college can best be illustrated by a personal example. Giovanii Jorquera, a Latino, grew up in a poor, single-parent home. He finished high school with a “C-” average. He then joined the Marine Corps, but after completing his service, he realized that he needed a college education.

Giovanii enrolled in Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, California. He needed to take remedial courses. He found a dedicated English teacher who realized Giovanii’s potential. He graduated from Cerritos College, transferred to the University of California, and later received his bachelor’s degree in accounting. Today, Giovanii is a senior auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

These success stories are legion at community colleges.

Read the full article.

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About the Author

Jack Scott
is a scholar-in-residence at Claremont Graduate University. He previously served as chancellor of the California Community Colleges, as a California state senator and as president of Pasadena City College.