Elite columnists and reporters, highly attuned to their upper-middle-class readership, rarely cover community colleges. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews once wrote, “My page view totals and e-mail traffic indicate readers move on quickly … whenever they see the words ‘community college.’”
So I was momentarily pleased to see that Joe Nocera devoted his New York Times column this morning to the role that two-year institutions can play “to help grease the wheels of social mobility.” The piece, “Filling the Skills Gap,” notes that community colleges, which educate a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students, are severely underfunded and overcrowded and deserve better. So far so good.
But where Nocera lost me was in his contention that today community colleges should be primarily about preparing students for “middle-skill jobs,” rather than providing “a passageway to a university degree,” a function they served in “their earlier incarnation” as “junior colleges.”
Community colleges have two big roles—to provide skills, certificates, and AA degrees that will improve employment prospects for students, and to provide a gateway for low-income and working-class students who wish to transfer and ultimately receive a bachelor’s degree. The downgrading of community colleges to a single function—skills training—would constitute a betrayal for the many working-class students who aspire to more.
While community colleges have a critical role to play in preparing some students with important vocational skills, federal education survey data show that 81.4 percent of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree. That only 11.6 percent of entering community-college students do so within six years is a national tragedy. Some look at these numbers and suggest community colleges should downplay the idea of transfer, but it makes more sense to improve and strengthen transfer paths.
For many talented and diligent low-income students who must work to make ends meet, community college is a more affordable and flexible option than beginning at a four-year institution, even though they understandably prefer to ultimately earn a B.A. rather than a certificate or an AA degree. U.S. Census data show that the mean earnings of workers age 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree has increased relative to that of workers with some college/associate’s degree, from 47 percent more in 1975 to 68 percent more in 2010.
Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron, who is featured in Nocera’s column, understands that many students aspire to a bachelor’s degree, which is why, as Nocera notes in passing, Miami Dade has begun offering baccalaureate degrees. Miami Dade and other leading community colleges are upgrading, teaching “high skills” as well as “middle skills.” Indeed, Padron is co-chair, along with New York Public Library president Anthony Marx, of a Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal—rejecting the second-class status of two-year institutions.
I’m pleased that the New York Times is devoting space to community colleges. But rather than seeing them as places where low-income students will settle for “middle skills,” community colleges should aim higher. Two-year institutions should always have an important and valuable vocational role—which, for low-income students may represent a significant step up. But the additional function of community colleges as a pathway to a four-year degree in the modern economy is more important than ever if we want education to continue to be about significant social mobility.