Global Connections: Promoting community colleges to the world

Brenda Govender, chief executive officer at PAX Commercial College in South Africa, visits with AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus (right) and Wayne Wheeler, director of AACC's international programs and services. (Photo: AACC)

Many people ask why so many international delegations wish to visit the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to learn about U.S. community colleges. Even more appear surprised to learn just how many do so during any given period.

The fact is that there has been heightened domestic and international interest in U.S. community colleges for more than a decade. AACC frequently receives requests to host and present information to international delegations from a variety of sources. Most often, those requests come from U.S. government agencies or from organizations that administer U.S. government-funded exchange programs. At times, the requests come directly from foreign embassies.

In the last 12 months, AACC has hosted more than 25 international delegations, nearly 200 representatives from more than 32 countries on six continents. Those delegations often consisted of ministers of education or other foreign dignitaries, representatives from national educational associations or from foundations.

A respected system

Why such high interest in U.S. community colleges? The American community college model is unique among education systems around the world. The concept has had successful longevity, going back more than 100 years. Since their inception, community colleges have been public, open-access institutions helping to nurture and sustain American society.

Today, the community college sector is the largest and most diverse sector of U.S. higher education. Community colleges provide the first two years of a university education, workforce development and lifelong learning programs as well as developmental education within a network of more than 1,100 institutions across the nation, which serve more than 12 million students each year.

Representatives from Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru visit AACC through the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

Community colleges and the many opportunities they provide for students to obtain a high-quality education have been increasingly highlighted in bilateral discussions between the U.S. and other nations, and at international meetings in speeches by top U.S. government officials, including several U.S. presidents and secretaries of state, education, labor and commerce.

President Donald Trump’s recent comments questioning the purpose of community colleges have only served to highlight their already increasing notability. For example, AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus recently published a well-read and widely distributed editorial answering the question “What are community colleges? Are they vocational schools?” Also, AACC’s past-president George Boggs published a well-received commentary “This is what Trump gets wrong about community colleges.”

More directly, community colleges have the reputation of playing a historic and vital role in the removal of social and economic barriers for millions of Americans and the creation of the American middle class. They do this with great expertise through collaboration and partnership with private sector business and industry. U.S. Rep. Virginia Fox (R-North Carolina) wrote an article last month for Community College Month describing community colleges as having “provided the path for millions of Americans to reach the goals they have for themselves” and also as having “changed the face and the future of many communities across America.”

In 2017, AACC President Bumphus was appointed to the President’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. Consequently, most international delegations that visit AACC are from countries with developing or emerging economies that are seeking international best and promising practices which can create education-to-employment or entrepreneurial opportunities for their own large and growing youth populations. They are looking for new and innovative ways to provide their own citizens with the skills needed to grow their nations’ economies and to develop their own middle classes. In essence, they are looking to replicate the American dream.

About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.