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Community Colleges: One Path to a Better America

Lauren Della Bella

The horrific death of George Floyd has most everyone thinking about how we can make our country more equitable for all. There are, unfortunately, no shortage of systemic shortcomings in our society that fuel racism and inequality. There’s so much in need of repair and, in some cases, to be dismantled and reimagined.  

Given the transformative power of education, a natural starting point would be making high-quality education more accessible to everyonebut especially to minorities, low-income and disenfranchised populationsOne meaningful step in the right direction: more state and federal funding for community colleges.  

Community colleges have long been seen by many of our political leaders and policymakers as a second, if not distant second, choice to four-year colleges. And, traditionally, a four-year degree might have led to greater lifetime income when compared to a two-year degreeBut that is not necessarily true anymore. For so many, community colleges and two-year degrees represent an important path to a better life — and, therefore, to a better country for us all.  

There are a host of reasons community colleges may be preferable to a traditional four-year degree:

  • Many high school graduates and adults looking for new opportunities need to find them close to home. They are in no position, financially or due to family commitments, to move to another region of the country. Community colleges offer programs that are closely aligned with the employment needs in their regions.  
  • Community colleges also don’t typically saddle their students with the sort of backbreaking loan debt that has become commonplace for many traditional college graduates.  
  • Furthermore, as technology and other factors continue to transform our economy and the very nature of work itself, more students will seek associate degrees and certificate programs that lead them to more stable, betterpaying jobs.  

This is exactly what so many need: degrees that are in demand by local employers and that provide family-sustaining wages… without high levels of loan debt 

The problem iscommunity colleges aren’t getting the financial support from federal or state governments that they both deserve and need. As Sara Goldrick-Rab wrote in The Atlantic in May: 

“Consider that in 2001, state and local appropriations contributed 61 percent of community colleges’ average revenue, helping keep tuition low at an average $2,240 a year. But over the next 15 years, state and local governments cut back their support, causing average tuition to swell by 65 percent. These days, community college is rarely free. To make matters worse, despite the clear evidence that community-college students need relatively more support to succeed (many of them are the first in their family to attend college), states invest more in institutional resources and financial aid for students attending four-year institutions. In turn, those students—who come to college with distinct advantages in terms of family wealth and fewer academic-support needs—reap the benefits. A 2016 American Institutes of Research analysis found that students attending four-year public research universities benefit from 60 percent more spending compared with community-college students.” 

Congress and state legislatures need to step up here. As Goldrick-Rab notes in her piecethe second-class status of community colleges is clearly reflected in the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Even though community colleges educate roughly 40% of post-secondary students nationwide, they were allocated just 27 percent of the college-related funds. This shortfall is amplified by the fact that more than 50 percent of those enrolled at community colleges are in the low-income category. 

One is left to wonder if part of the issue here isn’t the fact that many of our legislators and policymakers are financially comfortable — if not wealthy — and graduates of a traditional four-year college, often one with considerable prestige. Might they be, even if subconsciously, looking upon community college as something less than, forgetting that the students there are on their way to being more than”? 

There is a community college in the overwhelming majority of counties in the United States. Properly funded, they can make our workforce stronger and our society more just.   

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