There was a time when my earning a baccalaureate degree at the University of Nebraska seemed unlikely. My dad was an auto mechanic. He was a good person but had limited means and little understanding of the value of a college education.
Luckily, Allen Strunk, then publisher of the McCook Daily Gazette, taught me the skills of a newspaper reporter and convinced me to take a few courses at the local junior college. It was there, at McCook Junior College, and now McCook Community College, that my appreciation for learning and its role in society flourished.
Teachers at McCook Junior College took the time and made the effort to encourage me, to persuade me that I could make it at the state university in Lincoln. They made me feel I could take on a four-year degree, and I will be eternally grateful to them as countless other former students of community colleges are today for the encouragement they received.
In time, the University of Nebraska awarded me not one, but three degrees in the 1960s, and they have served me well in my personal and professional life. Still, I would not have gone on in school without my experience at McCook.
Community colleges in America have had a profound effect on the young and the not so young. There are nearly 1,200 community college campuses spread across the United States and they enroll nearly half of all undergraduate students. If we restrict the count to public institutions, community colleges enroll a stunning 56 percent of all undergraduates.
Two-year colleges are the most geographically convenient higher education institutions in the nation and without their proximity, numerous dreams of a better life would be dashed.
Community colleges are also a striking bargain, offering the least expensive programs in the country. In 2006, the average annual tuition and fees at a community college were $2,272, compared with $5,491 for a public four-year institution and $22,218 per year for a private four-year school.
Because of their accessibility, community colleges serve students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. For example, more than 50 percent of all Hispanic and American Indian undergraduates begin their college careers at community colleges and numerous outstanding black students have found their wings at two-year institutions.
The two-year colleges do an excellent job of preparing students for transfer to four-year colleges and universities to earn the baccalaureate degree. Significantly, students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution are as likely to earn a bachelor's degree as those who begin their studies at a four-year institution of higher learning.
Community colleges train imposing numbers of men and women who serve the public good, in essential fields like law enforcement, firefighting, health sciences, and parks and conservation. No one can overstate the importance of this contribution.
A growing number of national leaders believe community colleges are essential to America's future global competitiveness. "We cannot overemphasize their importance to their communities and to their nation in the years ahead," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board.
Caperton is so taken with the might and potential of two-year colleges that he has formed a National Commission on Community Colleges, a group of exceptional community college leaders who will present recommendations on ways to further advance and take advantage of innovative community colleges. "It will take a concerted effort from all of our colleges and universities if the United States is to remain an international force for social and economic good," he added.
Caperton is, I believe, correct.