By Dr. Christopher Smithmyer
Life is made up of your stories. Stories are made up of characters. We all know that one person who only tells stories that revolve around him or her, all the other people are just faceless, replaceable bit parts that he or she could care less about. The best stories have a good supporting cast. While most of us expect that a person will be the hero (or anti-hero as it may be) in their own story, we also expect that there will be depth and breadth to their relationships. This is one of the reasons that college and trade school are so important in our culture, they introduce us to the people who will be parts of our stories. Whether it is world-renown professor who is connected to us via the gossamer filament of attending their class a few times or the mithril chains of the lifelong friend that we met freshman year and road tripped across the country with, these relationships that you build in college will be the focal point of your stories throughout your life. As with all stories, they will evolve, take on new characters and new challenges- but your foundation of adult life will be your college or trade school. This is the advantages that big colleges proclaim over j community colleges; however, in the modern age community colleges can give big colleges a run for their money, at least in this category.
The main reason that students go to college if for education. It is widely “accepted” that community college educations are not as “good” as a university education. According to Scholarship.com, this is a gross misstatement. They say “Countless community college attendees have gone on to become household names in every sect of society. Who, you ask? There’s Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, fashion designer Calvin Klein, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, astronauts James McDivitt, Eileen Collins and Fred Haise, MasterCard founder Melvin Salveson and the man responsible for many of our fondest childhood memories, Walt Disney. Your college experience is what you make of it regardless of where you go to school and these individuals certainly used every resource to their advantage!” While not everyone will be as famous as these, community colleges still provide an excellent education at a fraction of the price. While major universities are concentrating on research, community colleges are concentrating on their students.
There are three big areas where community colleges are lagging behind major universities in the United States (four if you count that they are way behind in the scandals, but that is a good thing). These areas are:
Addressing these issues opens up a world of funding and student placement opportunities for community college systems. While you may think that these advancements would be expensive, you would be wrong. These programs can be implemented in the modern digital world with a little work, a little know-how and through building new partnerships with the private sector to enhance your students’ opportunities. These advancements work both for students who are doing a 2×2 (two years at community college and two years at a 4-year school) or students who are doing all four years at their local community college.
Building a research program sounds antithetical to the mission of a community college. Community colleges are designed to provide high-quality, affordable education pathways to students. Many people feel that a strong research agenda would undermine the relationship between the faculty and the students. If you were to try to implement a traditional university model, then they would be right; however, community colleges serve the local, county and regional community- publishing in large international journals would be a bit overkill (though it can still be helpful). Community colleges should have an active research program, but that program should target trade journals, main-stream publications, local publications, and smaller academic journals. This allows the school to “get its name out there” and still allows the faculty to interact with the students (good faculty will even have students help them with the articles). These smaller publications are still good for building notoriety but require less time to create the articles. This allows the faculty to concentrate on their primary vocation, the students. Forward-thinking schools even have a literary agent for the faculty, who can help the faculty place their articles in their field without the “wait and see” rejection process of the big journals. Trade journals love articles from qualified faculty, the faculty just need to see the benefit of publishing in these periodicals (many journals articles are read by under 1000 people, whereas trade journals have a readership of 100,000 to 1 million each month).
The second area that many progressive community colleges are building is their study abroad option. While this may also seem antithetical to the “affordable” element of the definition of community colleges, the cost is more than counterbalanced by the benefits. Here are three key statistics on study abroad programs at the college and high school level (From University of California Merced):
Please follow the hyperlinks if you would like to see more statistics of why this benefits students. Community colleges have a unique ability to introduce their students (and students from other universities) to study abroad opportunity. One of the most prohibitive elements of a “traditional” study abroad program is the tuition cost, which can often exceed the cost of the trip itself! Through applied tuition credit systems, community colleges can offer study abroad programs at a much lower cost than four-year schools. Couple this with the diminutive amount of normal tuition at the community college level, students who study abroad during their two years at community college before matriculating to a four year college can leave college with a debt of around $25,000-$35,000 (this is with a “Cadillac” $10,000 study abroad trip); whereas a student who went to the same four year college that the student transferred to and studied at a “bargain” study abroad trip, would leave college with the same degree and upwards of $54,000 in debt. Further, study abroad credits will transfer to almost any school (as long as the college is regionally accredited) so students from the 4-year college in the example can study in the community college study abroad program and save money, thus increasing the revenue for the community college!
Finally, the idea that community colleges only serve the local community is outdated. They are part of the national education system and need a proper coming out party. Through association, community colleges could provide access to high school students around the country opportunities to attend colleges for much less, get the same degrees and even study abroad. Community colleges need to have a national student pipeline to attract high-quality students who will do 2×2 programs at their university (sometimes online). This not only increases the opportunity of the students in the system to a network but also increases the hiring potential of the graduates as this allows the community college to build corporate relationships and partnerships with companies around the country. Community college and trade school are each designed to provide students with opportunity. The more we constrain that opportunity, the weaker the opportunity becomes. As community colleges expand in their acceptance, the more opportunity that they can provide the students who enroll within the system.
These three simple programs can expand the system of community college and trade school education in the United States. With the educational debt of our country being estimated at $1.3 trillion, we are at a point of crisis. We have the tool to avert this crisis at our fingertips, but people do not want to use this tool because of the stigma of community college or trade schools. With community college business majors making $120,000 a year and skilled tradespeople from trade school starting at $50,000, which is about the same as what you would make after 10 years working in the field with a liberal arts degree (this number is also skewed because it includes the millions of dollars made by celebrities). The stigma is a lie, and it is time we expose this lie. Community colleges, branch campuses, and trade schools are the right choice for millions of Americans going into the college system. With these three improvements, community colleges can be an effective, affordable solution to educational debt that this country needs.