Saturday, May 13, 2006

Look for a Growing Need for Strong Community/Junior Colleges

College is expensive and it will only get worse. It is too often an economic reality that many qualified students coming out of high school cannot attend their first-choice schools simp because they do not want to be buried in debt upon graduation. In many cases, going to a community college for two years to get introductory courses out of the way, and then transferring to a four-year college to get a bachelors degree, is a reasonable plan. Unfortunately, at some (most?) high schools, including the one I teach at, even considering attending a community college is a sign of, for lack of a beter term, failure. That is too bad, and unwarranted considering long-term financial planning.

The scenario mentioned above is what many people think of when considering the role of community colleges. There is another reason which will become more important as time goes on. The U.S. economy is in a type of phase tranistion right now, moving from one with a significant manufacturing base to one with a service and technology oriented base. Blue-collar workers who need training in entirely new fields will be increasing in number. We must continue to support local community colleges, which are largely publicly funded, in order to ensure workers in our communities have viable options to have access to high paying jobs.

Community colleges will also become more important in large cities and in many rural communities, where, too often, the vast majority of low income families live. Graduates from school districts in these areas often don't have the same opportunities to attend the major four-year colleges because of costs as well as a lack of academic preparation. Speaking from my experience in a large city district, the level of rigor and academic skills in inner city schools is not at the same level as wealthier suburban districts. This is reflected in scores on SAT, ACT and AP exams, for example, as well as in disturbing dropout rates (as high as 50% in some large city districts) and percentage of graduates who go on to graduate college with a bachelors degree. For instance, only 6% of high school graduates from Chicago graduate from college within six years. That is an unbelievable statistic. Community colleges can and do provide the academic boost necessary to make it at a four-year school.

The sterotype and reputation of the 1100 community colleges in the U.S. needs to change for the better, since they will play a key role in our continued effort to adapt to globalization and an evolving economy, where higher education is becoming more important and essential for the workforce. We cannot afford to overlook this portion of our educational infrastructure.

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