Community Colleges Play More Vital Role than Ever

What community colleges need to do is keep the role that we play in higher education visible and accessible to all citizens, just as we have been doing during this economic recovery. One of the things Americans learned with the Great Recession of 2008 was to be a little more frugal with our personal finances. We finally understood the wisdom of the Greatest Generation who lived through the Great Depression about the value of living within our means. And living within our means is a good thing.

Living within our means does not have to translate into "punishing" ourselves with austere self-sacrifice. It does, however, require us to make smarter spending choices and realize that "bigger and pricier" does not necessarily mean "better." As Americans recalibrated their spending habits during the recession, they began making different decisions about post-secondary education and sought the benefits of going to community colleges. Community colleges don't need to be the "other" choice for anyone choosing to go to college. We're not the "cheap seats." Community colleges are a sound investment. Recent high school graduates and families, not being able to afford the high cost of private and public 4-year college tuition, turned to 2-year colleges as the most practical and affordable choice. When dislocated workers couldn't find work, they turned to the most pragmatic educational avenue --community and technical colleges -- to help them update their skills and perhaps prepare for totally new careers. Community Colleges provide valuable post-secondary educational opportunities for those who want to pursue career and technical training, academic transfer to a four-year degree, or to gain skills to achieve a better position in the workforce.

It's also been a good thing for Americans to discover -- and for some to rediscover -- the great value of community and technical colleges and the important role they have play in a healthy economy and workforce. By value, I mean that the significance of community colleges goes beyond the lower price tag of college tuition. Community colleges are key to building a stronger and more competitive workforce, providing employers with the highly skilled and well-prepared employees that are ready to make immediate contributions to their field.

Saint Paul College is key to our local economy. Wilder Research released the results of a study that estimates the economic impact of Saint Paul College on the Twin Cities to be $256 million dollars and an estimated 2,471 jobs. The study further estimated the value of the increase in productivity that the graduates of over 100 different degree, diploma, and certificate programs offered by Saint Paul College will yield throughout their careers. Assuming a 40-year work life, the education received by these graduates will yield additional state income of $39.1 million. " Saint Paul College makes a long-term contribution to the regional economy with every graduating class, because the productivity improvements from higher education last for the worker's entire career," said Jose Diaz, research scientist for Wilder.

Community colleges need to be a measured voice of reason for keeping college costs down for all -- not only for the underserved, but also those who are in the "middle class." Few people can really afford four years of private colleges or even four years of public 4-year colleges without going into debt. Many people cannot afford to attend 2-year colleges full-time. The fact that student financial aid is poised to become the next big financial bubble is of concern to all colleges. We must continue to get the word out that community colleges are a viable option for students, in terms of cost savings and financial security. For our part here at Saint Paul College, we have instituted a 2-year freeze on tuition. All along, our strategy has been to continue to get the word out that community colleges are a viable option for students, in terms of cost savings, financial security, and upward mobility.

If, as a country, we don't want people hocking their future in the high costs of education, we need to continue to excel as community colleges, partner with business and industry, and be an honest, viable solution and choice for those a seeking an affordable post-secondary education. Community colleges must push for partnerships with K-12 schools and school districts, which involves helping primary and secondary institutions work with parents and guardians in preparing their children for college. Community colleges must be vocal advocates and create more partnerships with community based organizations, and continue strategies that improve both access and student success in order to build a stronger and better educated middle class. Of course people don't actually say "I want to grow up and be part of the middle class" -- what they dream of is having a good job and being able to provide for their families. But the educational opportunity available through community and technical colleges is what gives Americans a true pathway to better jobs and the ability to provide a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their families.

We must all remain vocal to ensure that policymakers and the public see that supporting 2-year colleges is fundamental to local economic development and keeping our communities as a whole strong. We all need to be the voice for 2-year colleges in our communities. Community colleges play a more vital role than ever in our economic recovery and building a stronger future for the majority of Americans.