Some will argue that America will not win the skills race and strengthen the middle class without greater might at two-year institutions, and I agree with them.
The presidential candidates need to read and digest a study commissioned by the nonprofit College Board, a document that illustrates community colleges carry a disproportionate student load with inadequate resources.
Amazingly, community colleges enroll nearly 47 percent of those who attend higher education, an increase of 18 percent over the past decade. As a former university president of more than 20 years, I regard these invaluable institutions as America's overlooked asset.
The study is the work of the National Commission on Community Colleges, a nationally recognized group of educators who believe two-year colleges are "the Ellis Island of American higher education."
In the century since they were founded, community colleges have become the largest single sector of American higher education, with nearly 1,200 regionally accredited two-year colleges enrolling 6.5 million students annually for credit and another five million for noncredit courses.
Students range in age from teenagers to octogenarians, annually taking courses in everything from English literature, biochemistry and statistics to foreign languages, the arts, community development, emergency medical procedures, engine maintenance and hazardous waste disposal.
These proven, and often underappreciated, institutions give many students the required tools to navigate in the modern world, and as Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, said after reviewing the study, "If the United States intends to remain competitive and shape international life, there must be a federal commitment to community college access and success, building opportunity and strengthening the middle class."
He said the report was long overdue, noting that community colleges were built through local and state understanding and support. "Nearly half of all jobs in the next ten years will require some postsecondary education," he noted.
Much of that education will have to come from energized and fairly funded community colleges. It is that simple, and more and more members of the Congress are seeing the light. U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska predicts the two-year schools will be the focus of unprecedented attention.
Significantly, the report calls for a national commitment to universal access to two years of education beyond high school. "Such a commitment would do much to guarantee international competitiveness," said Augustine Gallego, chancellor emeritus of San Diego Community College and chair of the National Commission on Community Colleges.
While many elite universities worry about adding to multi-billion-dollar endowments, community college presidents worry about how to accommodate growing numbers of students with quality teachers. The contrast is stark and telling.
Despite their limited resources, unsung community colleges:
¢ certify nearly 80 percent of first responders in the United States (police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians);
¢ produce more than 50 percent of new nurses and other health-care workers;
¢ account for nearly 40 percent of all foreign undergraduates on American campuses;
¢ enroll 47 percent of undergraduates who are African-American, 47 percent of those who are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively, of Hispanic and Native American undergraduates;
¢ award more than 800,000 associate degrees and certificates annually; and
¢ prepare significant numbers of students for transfer to four-year colleges and universities where they complete bachelor's degrees. Nationally, half of all baccalaureate degree recipients have attended community colleges prior to earning degrees.
As a graduate of McCook Community College in Nebraska, I know what a community college degree can do to instill needed confidence, to provide needed academic skills, and to assure the strongest possible desire to go on and succeed. It also gives those among us who have limited financial resources with a chance to compete in today's ever-changing society.