Opinion: Community colleges play key role, but are often overlooked

For all the focus on our nation’s schools, community colleges get short shrift. In the debates about the role education plays in our nation’s economy and democracy, we too often overlook our two-year colleges.

Created more than a century ago, arising from a variety of forces including responding to local needs and teacher preparation, over the years community colleges have evolved to meet the demands of the modern world.

Currently they serve several functions. They train for and award degrees in critical professions; prepare students for four-year colleges; provide low-cost higher educational alternatives; give second, third and fourth chances to those who have struggled in school; and offer lifelong education programs to their communities.

They also have tremendous reach. The more than 1,100 community colleges serve 12 million students (45 percent of all our undergraduates). Almost 60 percent of their students are women, half are nonwhite, and 36 percent are first generation college goers. They annually award 800,000 associate degrees; work directly to support businesses, K-12 schools, and four-year colleges; and are major players in the economy of their communities with expenditures of more than $50 billion.

The public is well aware of the value of community colleges. According to a recent poll from New America, a Washington think tank, 83 percent of the public agree that community colleges contribute to a strong American workforce; 82 percent agree they are worth the cost; 80 percent agree they prepare people to be successful; and 64 percent agree that they put their students first.

In our own survey of a dozen community college presidents we found more good news:

• Tuition increases have been small and in no way are they scaring students away from their academic pursuits.

• Major fund drives are surpassing goals, much like four-year colleges and universities.

• Relationships between two- and four-year presidents/chancellors are strong and they work together on matters of common interest, such as the recruitment of students.

• The community colleges are experiencing far more student interest in the sciences and a desire to earn a four-year degree.

• Presidents from the two-year institutions, more and more, are coordinating lobbying with their peers at the four-year schools.

But despite all the good news, not all is well with community colleges. A recent poll of 286 community college leaders tells us that enrollments are down, financial challenges are substantial, and the pipeline for future community college leaders is narrow.

Several years ago, then President Barack Obama brought much attention to community colleges when he pushed to make tuition free at community colleges. Since then, they seem to have dropped off the public’s radar. However, for those concerned with improving our schools and colleges, we do well to remember the role they play and support their great work.

— Gene A. Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of KU. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.