I recently read something that inspired me to carefully reflect on community colleges. In a passage about the history of the sector, it noted that “great challenges faced the United States … including global economic competition. National and local leaders realized that a more skilled workforce was key to the country’s continued economic strength — a need that called for a dramatic increase in college attendance — yet three-quarters of high school graduates were choosing not to further their education, in part because they were reluctant to leave home for a distant college.”
This passage is from AACC’s history of the community college about the beginnings of what would become the nation’s largest segment of higher education. What struck me most was the relevance to today’s challenges. The parallels are uncanny.
Remembering that community colleges were founded upon principles that allowed the elite colleges to maintain that status while providing advanced educational opportunities to those who otherwise would have not have access, I have to consider today’s extensive work to ensure that access equals success for all students.
And, we have learned that access is not enough. We must create ways and environments that foster goal attainment and success. For our institutions to do that we must listen to our students and create those ways and environments in a manner that provides the structure and support necessary for all students to succeed.
Most of you do this each and every day. I hear from community college presidents often about the creative, practical and tactical ways in which you are helping students achieve their goals. Your work is inspiring to me and to the millions of students who are able to realize their dreams. Whether it is a stepping stone to a university or the start of an actual career, community colleges are truly an on-ramp to the middle class for millions of Americans.
So many times as community college leaders we have to fight for our voices to be heard in higher education. From our inception, there has been a stigma about the quality of a community college education. Historically, we were founded in part to ensure that the elite universities were able to maintain that status. I believe that there is room for all of us to serve America’s students, but we need to understand our history in order to define our future. And that future looks very bright. For the first time in our history, community colleges have one of their own living in the White House. Having a working community college instructor as the First Lady of the United States is something that we can all take pride in without regard for political affiliation.
What’s different? The investment
There is no doubt that community colleges have taken center stage in Washington, D.C. Current legislative proposals include historic programs and services that will greatly benefit our students and our colleges. We have enjoyed tremendous support from many presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. So what makes this different?
The investment. Ask any marketing professional and they will tell you that people pay for what they value. The policy proposals that are currently being discussed by the House and the Senate contain a significant influx of federal funding for community colleges. And the funding is coupled with an understanding of the specific needs of community college students. It is a proposed investment in student support services including tuition, basic needs, workforce training and faculty development.
I urge you to take a moment to reflect on your work and how it has contributed to these developments. Community colleges may not cater to elite students, but we provide opportunities for all students to become elite members of our society. As a value proposition, we all know that community colleges provide a great return on investment, and so does the nation.