Community Colleges Continue to Step Up Their Game

The following post is a modified version of an article written by College of DuPage President Dr. Robert L. Breuder and printed in an internal newsletter for COD employees on Oct. 13, 2014.

PBS NewsHour recently posted an article from the Hechinger Report called "Why Even Top Tier Students Should Consider Community Colleges."

The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University. The writer starts with an interview with a top high school student in California who surprised herself by selecting a community college. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and is now at UCLA.

What does she say about community colleges? "My perception is completely different. They're very underestimated."

It's a perception that community colleges have fought from the beginning - that we are somehow inferior to four-year schools; that the education is easier; that it's only for students who can't go anywhere else. But as the article notes, and as my nearly 35 years as a community college president can attest to, community colleges have stepped up their game as the spotlight has shifted toward their contributions to higher education. President Obama singled out community colleges when he set two national goals: for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, and that community colleges will produce an additional five million graduates.

We already know that community colleges cost far less than their four-year counterparts. More than ever before, students and parents understand the value beyond the price tag and are realizing community colleges offer the best ROI in terms of a solid college education.

The story also cites research by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce that shows nearly 30 percent of community college graduates make more money than their counterparts with bachelor's degrees. While that advantage narrows by mid-career, community college graduates are paying much less on average for their educations and transfer students also end up with much less debt than their counterparts who chose to attend a four-year school from the start.

It's clear that community colleges are coming into their own, and a broader population is discovering what we've known all along. At my own institution, College of DuPage, we were pleased to see that recently ranked the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet area at #25 for healthiest college town, with COD listed among the schools. College towns traditionally have been defined by four-year institutions.

It has not been an easy journey for community colleges, which continue to encounter challenges. Enrollment is falling nationally, and colleges must continue to work hard to retain students and help them finish a degree, certificate or other credential. Student debt is at an all-time high, while tuition costs have skyrocketed.

At the same time, the millennials - the generation born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s - are fully aware of this picture. A recent Wells Fargo study showed that a vast majority of millennials have a strong fiscal awareness and know the importance of saving and the value of education. While 42 percent struggle with student debt, they are also optimistic about their futures, and 76 percent with a college education said it was worth it. Median income for college grads was $72,800 compared with $34,700 for non-college grads.

Meanwhile, an article in Community College Daily speculates whether President Obama's first goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 is possible to attain. While the rate of Americans who have some form of a post-secondary education has crept upward during the last several years, other countries are still far ahead of us and we aren't closing the gap as quickly as we hoped. While it is promising that more high-performing students are selecting community colleges than ever before, we still need to increase efforts at all levels to encourage students to pursue the benefits of higher education.

As the nation is very aware, higher education is rapidly changing. What the Hechinger article observes is that community colleges are often proving to be more responsive to these changes than four-year schools. As community colleges continue to emerge from the shadows of past misconceptions, we are increasingly viewed as the powerful educational institutions we have always been. Being able to change attitudes means community colleges must maintain a strong financial base, keep close tabs on what's taking place in education, and constantly look toward the future in terms of both workforce needs and delivery systems that help students reach their educational goals.