NEW YORK — Without a concerted, national effort to bolster the role of two-year institutions and expand access to them, the United States is in jeopardy of losing its status as an economic and global leader. That is the urgent message of a new study released today by the College Board’s Center for Innovative Thought in which the function of community colleges is analyzed in the context of the nation’s labor force and economic growth.
The study, conducted by the National Commission on Community Colleges, concludes that the United States must significantly increase the number of students who earn associate and bachelor’s degrees and calls for the president and Congress to take action in the form of a Community College Competitiveness Act, which would provide matching grants to states to support facilities’ construction and modernization. The Competitiveness Act is one component of the combined agreement the study recommends to national leaders, state officials and community colleges to make these institutions a priority and a national focus.
“Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America’s Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges” also calls for a national commitment to universal access to two years of education beyond high school.
“As a nation, we overlook community colleges at our own peril,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. “If the United States intends to remain competitive and shape international life, there must be a federal commitment to college access and success, building individual opportunity and strengthening the middle class in America.”
In the century since they were founded, community colleges have become the largest single sector of U.S. higher education, reports the study, which catalogs the names of some notable public officials, congressional and military leaders, CEOs, and Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners who began their education in community colleges. With nearly 1,200 regionally accredited two-year colleges enrolling 6.5 million students each year for credit and another 5 million for noncredit courses, community colleges are responsible for educating almost half of all U.S. undergraduates. As such, these schools are an indispensable asset in the increasing challenge to provide a growing workforce with educated, capable employees.
“Community colleges were built through local understanding and support,” Augustine (Augie) Gallego, chancellor emeritus, San Diego Community College District, and chair of the National Commission on Community Colleges, said. “We will continue to do our share in protecting the future of our communities, states and our country.”
Citing Bureau of Labor statistics, the study projects that nearly half of all jobs in the next 10 years will require some postsecondary education. However, several obstacles, including the rising costs of higher education, threaten the ability of community colleges to keep pace.
Among the areas that need more national attention and in which community colleges must be involved are biotechnology, nanotechnology, genetics, environmental engineering, energy, health care and new manufacturing technologies, the study cited.
While applauding the efforts of four-year institutions to respond to the growing needs in education, engineering, mathematics, science and technology, the commission reported that the role of two-year institutions must be expanded with transfer agreements that permit properly qualified students with associate degrees to advance to bachelor's degrees. Otherwise, the current degree completion gap for low-income, African-American, Native American and Hispanic students cannot be overcome.
Ronald Williams, past president of PrinceGeorge's Community College and now a vice president at the College Board working with the Commission, said, "The important thing about this report is that community colleges are asserting their role as agents of the public good and are saying 'Make the best use of us.'"
States are more involved with financing for community colleges than is the federal government, and it is imperative that governors and legislators become more involved in desired outcomes, the report stated. Furthermore, with encouragement and financial support from states, community colleges should work with secondary schools and four-year institutions to improve curriculum alignment and strengthen the bridge between high school and college success.
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