President Obama was in Warren, MI today (not far from where I grew up) to give a speech about community colleges. Here’s the gist:
In a speech Tuesday in Warren, Mich., he proposed sinking nearly $12 billion into revamping the country’s community-college system. The plan would provide $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school facilities. It would also fund open-source online courses so that schools don’t have to build more classrooms to admit more students.
Community colleges have long been where the bodies are in higher education, but now it’s ridiculous. The economy’s collapse has sent college students’ enrollments rolling downhill – kids who would have gone to expensive private schools are enrolling in moderately priced public universities, the university kids are going to regional colleges, and the regional students to community colleges. If you want to get more students with college degrees, community colleges are a natural place to start.
Christopher Beam at Slate notes further advantages:
If the university system is an ocean liner, community colleges are the speedboats of higher education. If they get more money and use it wisely, the thinking goes, they can produce results in a matter of years. After all, they’re designed to respond to the needs of the local community. For example, LaGuardia Community College recently introduced a program to train designers in New York City. When the fishing industry started struggling in Massachusetts, Cape Cod Community College turned its focus to nursing and other health-care-related jobs. When Connecticut introduced its first casino, one nearby community college started training croupiers. For an administration looking for shovel-ready projects, community colleges can provide a lot of shovels.
Let’s imagine the community college in twenty years. It’s taken up a fair amount of the role once played by larger state universities. It offers a wide range of four-year and two-year degrees, plus some applied postgraduate degrees. What’s more, different community colleges, like different universities and technical schools now, specialize. Some are outstanding teachers’ colleges, while others train designers, still others business professionals. But the biggest boom is in information technology – info techs work in medicine, business, law, government… You used to go to a community college to learn data entry. Now you go to learn data management, analysis, and modeling.
Think about it. Community college students (and teachers and IT departments) today often aren’t as tech-saavy as their university counterparts, but they can innovate in the use of digital technology. In fact, they have to. They don’t have the same physical plant and infrastructure as larger, more expensive schools. They’re unlikely to have folks on campus doing original research. They’re not mainframes. They’re terminals. But there’s a difference between smart and dumb terminals.
A community college, with an instituional subscription to the Google Books of the future, can do without a substantial library; they can do without cyclotrons or football stadiums or anything else that drains dollars and energy, public or private; I don’t know, but it seems to me that we’re standing at a unique juncture. Just as many of our parents (and especially grandparents) often don’t quite recognize what schools are like today, those of us in our twenties might not recognize the delicate ecology of colleges and universities when our kids start filling out those applications.*
(Unless we’re in some full-on dystopia where they’re admitted on the basis of their genes, in which case, good luck.)