Dismissive attitudes toward higher education have won new attention recently, with some politicians arguing that college degrees are no longer necessary or not worth the investment.
As the president of Montgomery College in Maryland, I know firsthand how risky such narratives are for students, who may end up underprepared for the current and future economies. More broadly speaking, such trends also diminish our country’s preparation for the future, another unconscionable result of growing partisanship. While education-watchers have rightly observed that partisan lines seem to be influencing a ripple of disdain toward higher education, some observations deserve critical assessment.
It is a fair critique that some higher education does not prepare students well for existing jobs and leaves students saddled with exorbitant debt. Institutions that do not adequately connect their curricula to the evolving needs of industry and leave students without applicable workplace skills have failed in their mission. Institutions where tuition rates have grown much faster than inflation are now accessible only to the wealthiest students, a dynamic that worsens the existing wealth gap in our country.
These trends have led some to justify reductions in public funding to higher ed at a time when most communities desperately need it. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that 65 percent of all jobs by 2020 will require some education/training beyond high school. This will be a harsh reality for those who have come to disparage higher ed as the playground of the elite. For workers in post-manufacturing regions where middle skills jobs have been replaced by lower- paying, service sector jobs, that reality is already here.
Strengthening the core
But there is good news. Enrollment at the 1,100 community colleges in the U.S. flies in the face of charges of elitism. Of the seven million people enrolled, a third of them qualify for Pell grants, meaning that many live in poverty — the population most in need of opportunity.
Diversity at community colleges also mirrors our national landscape closely with 23 percent of students Hispanic, 13 percent black, 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 48 percent white. Our students go directly into the workforce or on to four-year institutions. Thirty-six percent of community college students are the first in their families to attend college. The average annual tuition at a community college is $3,520, about 10 percent of the average annual cost of tuition and fees at a private university.
The parts of higher education that have considered themselves above the fray of business analytics — the old ivory tower model — have failed to hold themselves accountable for how their product works (i.e., preparing students for the work world, among other goals). They have done a profound disservice to students most in need: the poor and first-generation college students of all races and ethnicities.
This dynamic has also besmirched the broader reputation of higher education, which some, now, view as irrelevant to their lives and even worse, an extravagance for wealthy Americans. The reality is starker than they appreciate. Among the four states with the highest poverty rates (Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and New Mexico) — more than 18 percent live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data — three of them (Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky) share another characteristic: less than 25 percent of their population hold bachelor’s degrees (in New Mexico, 26 percent have bachelor’s degrees).
Investing in public education that is accountable should be a national priority, and community colleges are a good place to start. Public, affordable, open-access, and with curricula tightly tied to industry needs, such colleges are bridges to equal opportunity for many who have been left behind — urban and rural, immigrant and native, people of all races and ethnicities.
While education is a public good that should be financed by public means, education institutions should also be held accountable for results. At Montgomery College, we have made such accountability a part of our mission and publicly post student enrollment, retention, course pass rates, and graduation/transfer rates, on an annual scorecard. We also offer academic and career support for students without the advantages that middle- and upper-income backgrounds often provide.
The Obama administration saw clearly the connection between community colleges and economic revitalization. Many in the current administration, however, have propagated a broad-brush narrative of higher education as a frivolous playground of elitism, while diminishing the risks of an underprepared workforce.
When ideologues cast these debates in partisan terms, they are missing a vital, underlying truth: higher education is about people and opportunity in the U.S. Investing in community colleges and other public, four- year institutions leverages our nation’s resources in the most efficient ways and draws on the most diverse sector of talent. In the process, it creates more equitable access to opportunity, a central tenet of what was once known as the American Dream.