Are community colleges doomed?

Had a fascinating lunch meeting with a couple of the top people at University of Denver (Don McCubbrey, director of the Daniels Center for the Study of Electronic Commerce and Dan Callahan, Associate Dean and COO of DU’s University College) and much of what we discussed was the changing landscape of higher education. For those of you not here in Colorado, the fiscal position of the state is not at all good, and budgets are being dramatically cut in higher education, to the point where the consensus was that some of the community colleges are likely going to be shut down completely.

This is particularly worrying for our continued academic leadership as a nation: by cutting out more and more alternative paths to higher education (and advanced learning) we reduce the number of people who attend a college and dumb down our workforce. We will fulfill the long-held prophecy that America is going to become a Service Nation.

In other nations there are less forces pushing people into four-year colleges, and two-year technical schools, apprenticeships, and other alternative routes to the workforce (as a trained professional) are respected and encouraged. In this country I believe we’re the victim of our own enthusiasm for The College Experience and anyone who has visited a college campus in the last decade knows that there are a significant minority of students who are there “because you need to get that piece of paper” not because they are motivated learners seeking the knowledge to be successful in their lives, professionally or otherwise.

How do community colleges fit in? While succumbing to the pressure for everyone to have a Bachelor’s degree in something they offer an alternative path to fulfill primarily the so-called general education requirements. So a very common path for students – particularly lower income or working students – is to spend 2-3 years covering the general ed courses at a community college, then transfer to a four-year institution for the last two years of focused study. Look at the enrollment of a college and you’ll see a great influx of students half-way through the four year program.

Take that safety net away and you’ve just essentially disenfranchised a significant – and often highly motivated – segment of the college bound and, ultimately, workforce bound population. If as a working professional seeking a degree (particularly an undergraduate degree) my only choices are to attend a four-year degree granting institution or go to an online or alternative college like the University of Phoenix Online, I’ve got a big hill to climb, both financially and in terms of the required time commitment. Most colleges won’t let you do a six-year Bachelors and still qualify for financial aid, for example.

What’s the solution? I don’t know, but I am concerned that in the interest of balancing budgets and shifting finances into defense and the military sector we are continuing to erode our entire economy, and the real pain won’t show up for many years. And by then it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Certainly we would be better off if we had more viable alternatives to a four-year institution, alternatives that offered the best and most focused path for people to migrate into the workforce and meet their needs. Pushing everyone to travel the same path academically after high school comes from the same worldview that has given us no child left behind and mandatory testing every few years: a short-term win, but a long-term lose.

It’s time for us to wake up and really see higher education, and our valuation of pieces of paper, for what they are: invaluable for some, but the wrong path for others, others that can nonetheless prove national assets in the workplace and economy.

2 comments on “Are community colleges doomed?

  1. Many community colleges are experiencing the decrease in enrollments that you and the folks at the University of Denver have identified.
    However, I am pleased to tell you that the trend that you are seeing might be more of a regional issue than a lack of commitment to community colleges by local, state or the federal government.
    Enrollments in Florida at community colleges are on the rise in places such as Hillsborough Community College, Miami Dade College (previously Miami Dade CC)and others. Enrollments in certificate programs and degree granting programs in the health sciences, criminal science and others are actually increasing.
    In the case of career colleges or for profit universities, these educational institutions serve a legitimate purpose and fill a need for both traditional and non traditional students. Many career schools guarantee that students will fin a job upon graduation or completion of their course work.
    The literacy rate among Americans has never been higher and the need for institutions that teach will continue whether it be at the community college, the university or the career college.

  2. Thanks for the information, Steven. I know that you’re plugged into this area, so this is heartening news, and I can certainly hope that we’ll see more career colleges join the mix of choices too.

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