Perspective: Community Colleges Should Be at the Front Line of Economic Recovery

As governors across the nation look for ways to close yawning budget gaps, a prime target is higher education — especially community colleges. We can all sympathize with the need to rein in deficits, but states that slash deeply in this category are setting themselves up for even worse budget crises down the road. Education is the key to economic recovery, and healthy community colleges are a crucial part of this investment in the future.

One of the major challenges our nation faces is shifting from an economy based primarily on manufacturing to one that consists of diverse sectors, including the life sciences, health care, financial services, clean energy and cutting-edge technology. We already know that health care and environmental technology are two areas that will experience tremendous growth, particularly as the U.S. copes with an aging population and confronts the consequences of climate change.

Where can people get the training they need to enter these growing sectors? Almost across the board, the answer for the traditional student, the laid-off worker, the employee who needs more training and the Baby Boomer seeking to change careers is the same: community college.

That is because the focus of community colleges has shifted over the past decade to include not only the education of young adults leaving high school, but also adults who are already in the workforce but whose skill levels are not high enough to give them the mobility to move from sector to sector as new job opportunities emerge. There are now more than 8 million students enrolled in U.S. community colleges — almost half of all college students in America. Every one of them is looking to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century.

All of these changes create challenges that everyone, from budget-conscious political leaders and college officials to students and workers, needs to acknowledge and deal with. The Obama administration has committed $2 billion in federal grants to community colleges for job training and career changes. But for this investment to pay off, community colleges need to work with America’s business leaders both at the local and national levels to ensure their curricula train workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly pointed out, there are two million high-paying, high-skill jobs in the U.S. currently unfilled because employers cannot find qualified workers.

In some cases, community college administrators need to move quickly in response to a plant closing, for example, by developing a flexible, tailored program to get laid-off workers back to work in other industries.

Students need to have career pathways created for them that may begin with non-degree certificate programs and then continue to associate degrees. This takes time because of the incredible obstacles many of these students face. Often they are working full time and taking classes at night. Others need remedial classes to help them achieve their goals.

A number need to care for children or relatives and would benefit from the distance-learning programs that modern communications technologies make possible. Many experts believe distance-learning will be a major component of 21st century education, but educators still need the resources to make that happen.

Some students may be eligible for prior learning credit through experience they have in the workplace, the military, certifications or licensures as well as non-credit training experiences, and many are eligible for financial assistance. But all too often students aren’t aware of these opportunities to advance their educations. So that’s another challenge for political leaders and educators: getting people the information and guidance they need to earn their associate degrees. Many will be able to go on from there to earn degrees from four-year colleges.

The fact that community colleges are now on the national agenda and we speak of them in the same breath as the recovering economy is a dramatic change. It is vital that states invest in their community college systems rather than slash funding. We are moving out of the recession into a period of fiscal uncertainty. Community colleges already have proven to be important players on the road to recovery, and there’s little reason to doubt they will continue to play a vital role in our nation’s economic life.

— Thomas J. Snyder is president of Ivy Tech Community College, the nation’s largest state-wide community college with single accreditation. It is Indiana’s largest public postsecondary institution, serving nearly 200,000 students a year.