October 3 of this year a watershed moment in the history of community colleges occurred. That's when an estimated 67 million Americans watching the first presidential debate probably heard more discussion about community colleges than they ever had in their lifetime.
It was only a few words from President Obama, in what was considered a bad evening for him. The president told the audience he wanted to create "two million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now."
Mr. President, we in the community college world congratulate you on your victory and we are never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth.
From my vantage point, we need to broaden our thinking and jumpstart the community college conversation with new thinking.
Early in the president's first term he proposed $12 billion to community colleges and called for a 50 percent hike in the number of graduates. Well, as a lifelong community college leader, I was ready to sign up for that!
Once Congress and the administration finished their torturous negotiations it ended up being only $2 billion and even that money has been slow moving from the federal government to the local level.
Right now the community college graduation rate is 20 percent. If you went to a community college just to secure job training, and not a degree, that percentage is fine. Yet many with four-year degrees actually started out as community college students (45 percent). We know this education pipeline works and could work even better.
I think this focus on numbers and money is missing the point. Yes, I am for more resources, more job training and more community college graduates. However, we must get the strategy right.
Our organization is focused on helping high-performing community college students connect during their first year of higher ed with other top students in traditional four-year programs. We are aiding them in seeing the possibilities that exist for them to earn both an associate's and then a bachelor's degree. It's working.
Other non-profits, like Achieving the Dream, are taking an evidence-based approach to improve community college, especially for those from low socio-economic status and students of color.
All of these are important steps. But let's be honest. The attention on community colleges has been building since Bill Clinton was president. We were a favorite of George W. Bush's as well. Two million here...one million there...it all adds up, as they say in D.C. With a targeted strategy we'll produce the results America needs. That's just as important as national goals and federal appropriations.
Dr. Brian K. Johnson leads the community college initiative for The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (www.nscs.org/community), a national nonprofit that is the only interdisciplinary honor society with active chapters on both two-year and four-year college campuses.
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