For more than 100 years, community colleges have made significant contributions to higher education, creating pathways toward degree completion, academic success, and job attainment for students seeking flexibility in their studies. This is true both on a national scale — community colleges educate nearly half of American undergraduates — and on a local one — many such schools provide pre-professional training relevant to regional industries.
Recently, our nation has focused on these pathways in new and exciting ways, perhaps due to support for the community college system among Washington leadership. Dr. Jill Biden, our nation’s second lady, has taught at several community colleges, and she is currently a faculty member in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. For years, she has been a vocal advocate for these institutions, and she has worked to raise awareness of the value of community colleges in building our national capacity for innovation and competition. Community colleges make a strong and unique contribution to regional industry by providing skills-based training and competency development, and they do so while boasting tremendously diverse student populations.
The most recent figures from the American Association of Community Colleges indicate a 50/50 split between white students and students of color at community colleges. While white students represent half of community college populations, Hispanic students comprise 21 percent, and black students make up 14 percent. Asian and Pacific Islander students, meanwhile, represent 6 percent. Rounding out the list are students who identify as biracial or multiracial (3 percent), and those who did not report or whose ethnic backgrounds are unknown (4 percent).
Community colleges are crucial providers of higher-education opportunities; 46 percent of all undergraduates in the country are enrolled in a community college, and such institutions educate large swaths of historically-marginalized racial groups. In fact, 61 percent of all Native American undergrads, 57 percent of Hispanic undergrads, 52 percent of black undergrads, and 43 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander undergrads attend community colleges.
It is also important not to overlook the regional contributions that community colleges lend the country, particularly in the work that they do to prepare students for careers in specialized local industries. Henry Ford Community College’s automotive technology program, for example, provides a formidable pathway to working in Michigan’s automotive industry. Hartnell College’s agriculture and industrial technology program, by contrast, contributes significantly to the nation’s lettuce production. Camden County College’s focus on nursing is a strong contributor to the medical industry in New Jersey and Philadelphia. There are numerous other programs around the country in which diligent students from diverse backgrounds are making significant contributions to a wide range of local industries.
While the practical emphasis on job training and skills development within community colleges is strong, such schools continue to make a significant impact on collegiate routes for students, specifically those seeking a pathway to four-year institutions. In fact, with college costs rising dramatically, community college remains a smart option for students responsible for funding their education independently. One example of a strong model is Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. Its articulation agreements with four-year colleges in the state afford students seamless access to bachelor’s degrees.
The future holds tremendous opportunity for the growth and development of community colleges. These institutions will transcend their undeserved reputations as merely accommodating students who could not get into (or were not allowed within) more privileged academic spaces to gain respect as the thriving centers that they are — places where students cultivate marketable skills, industries find competitive job candidates, and families find an affordable way to support their children’s higher-education goals.
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