More than just workforce development

Maryland is the most recent state to provide a means for students to attend community college at little or no cost. New York, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee now offer various programs to make community college either free or highly affordable.

Early in my career I taught full-time in a community college. There, I came to appreciate the financial struggle and personal commitment that students make to improve their lives through education. Many community college students face tremendous obstacles to attend, including complicated personal lives, an absence of previous positive educational experiences and the lack of necessary academic skills required to succeed.

My wife teaches nursing full-time at our local community college and shares with me stories of her students who face myriad challenges including financial ones. The societal maladies that are seen broadly are noticeably manifested in community colleges. Many students today are often unable to afford to feed themselves and their families — referred to as food insecurity. As a result, food banks are increasingly being found on campuses.

The students served

Today, more than six million students are enrolled in some 1,200 public and private two-year institutions. This represents more than 40 percent of all students in U.S. undergraduate institutions. These students represent all socio-economic groups, with a high concentration of students from lower income and marginalized populations: 38 percent of community college students have parents who did not graduate from college, and 56 percent of all undergraduate Hispanic students are in community colleges.

The average cost of tuition and fees at a community college is around $3,500, still far less than the nearly $10,000 it costs at the average four-year public institution, but still beyond the reach for many Americans.

Well-rounded citizens

The need for a better educated society cannot be disputed. But, we often limit our thinking to how community college education benefits workforce development. But there is another important societal benefit achieved from more students attending community college: improved civic and global education.

The Center for American Progress reports that civic knowledge is at an all-time low. The Annenberg Public Policy Center found in 2016 that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. The implications of this for maintaining a vibrant and strong democracy seem clear. Increasingly Americans are suspicious of governmental institutions and public officials, question mainstream media and are unable to engage in civil discussions on important issues facing us domestically and globally.

I doubt that many policymakers who endorse free community college are thinking in terms of improving civic education: to them, it’s workforce development and jobs. But an important outcome of universal community college education is that more Americans will have a chance to learn about our political, social and economic conditions and values, leading to a stronger democracy. And this will happen because of the presence of general education requirements in degree granting programs.

Benefits to society

A comprehensive and relevant learning experience cannot be achieved only by taking courses and engaging in learning that emphasize skills and aptitudes for careers. In “gen ed,” students are required to take courses in a broad range of disciplines — social sciences, humanities, fine arts, and natural and mathematical sciences — the intent of which is to provide them with a foundation for engaging in greater society.

Some might argue that even (and especially) community colleges have an obligation to graduate students who are worldly, civically astute and enlightened. Accounting students take courses in tax procedures, nursing students engage in clinical work in hospitals, and computer science majors learn about programming. But, because of “gen ed,” they also learn about the workings of our government, how society is constituted, the benefits of culture and the impact of globalization.

Nursing students at Montgomery College (Maryland), where my wife teaches, must take courses in general psychology and sociology. The accounting degree program at Southwest Tennessee Community College requires that students take courses in communication studies and the humanities or fine arts. And in every community college degree program there is a required course in English composition that provides students with an opportunity to explore all manner of social, cultural and political engagement.

One of the most pressing challenges is the deficiency in young people appreciating the role of constitutional principles, as well as the benefits of a multicultural and tolerant society. Civic education demands that individuals recognize social and economic stratification, the contributions of immigrants (including those who may be undocumented), and the effects of marginalization and discrimination.

This is the mission of general education. With more students being able to afford community college there is hope that a more civically and globally aware society will be the outcome.

About the Author

David J. Smith
is a Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant and president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education. He edited the publication "Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource" (U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2013).