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When President Barack Obama recently described community colleges as an “under-appreciated asset in the country” and announced his goal to increase the total number of community college graduates by five million by 2020, he turned the spotlight on a sector of higher education that has often been viewed as the stepchild of the higher-education system.
Of course, the opposite is true. The American community college system is, in fact, the envy of the world and a shining example of getting education right by intuitively adapting to the demands of the growing workforce of today and beyond.
America’s 1,200 community colleges serve almost 12 million students and are blazing a trail when it comes to preparing workers of all ages and experience levels across a staggering array of industries. Community colleges train more than 80 percent of police, fire and EMS workers and more than half of nurses and health-care workers.
Two-year colleges are the education solution of choice for many immigrants, people already in the workplace and those returning to work in a second career as way of dealing with the challenges of an economic downturn. With the average public four-year college tuition costing $7,605 annually, community colleges also offer a practical and viable financial alternative for learners.
Serving a need in health care
Nowhere is the power of the American community college more apparent than in the field of health-care education. The health-care industry as a whole is facing some of its greatest challenges in recent memory, and it’s the community colleges that are best positioned to adequately meet the labor demands of this rapidly expanding industry.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, the nation’s population is expected to increase by 18 percent by 2020, due in part to people living longer, resulting in an additional 50 million people requiring health care. As we know, this changing demographic reality is going to have a dramatic effect on the demand for registered nurses (RNs).
Furthermore, the health-care industry itself continues to grow at a staggering rate. By 2019, the health-care industry is expected to grow from a $2.5 trillion industry to $4.6 trillion. Community colleges currently educate about 60 percent of new RNs. What other sector of higher education is as well-equipped to meet these growing demands?
The community college system is ideally suited to rise to these challenges because of its collective desire to embrace the latest educational tools and technology. Public two-year colleges are the early adopters and often the most willing to ensure students have access to the best learning technology.
As chairman of METI, a leading developer of healthcare simulation and education solutions, I have seen this commitment to excellence first hand. When it comes to health sciences education, it’s the community colleges that are often the best equipped. It’s that drive and passion to invest in the future that makes the community college such a viable environment for training the workers of tomorrow.
The true value of the community college system isn’t found just in the data and statistics. It’s in the way the colleges affect people’s lives in important and meaningful ways, opening doors to people who might not otherwise have been exposed to real opportunity and providing robust and real-world training for the modern world, based on the latest best practices and learning technologies.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2004 and 2014, 2.7 million new jobs will be created that require a community college credential and another 1.7 million will require a bachelor’s degree. A higher education is becoming an expectation more so than a privilege for today’s workforce.
I believe America can achieve the goal of again having the highest college graduate attainment in the world, and it’s the community colleges that we need to support to get there.
Oberndorf is founder of METI and serves as its board chairman.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges