Community colleges are deeply unsexy. This fact tends to make even the biggest advocates of these two-year schools which educate nearly half of U.S. undergraduates sound defensive, almost a tad whiny. “We don’t have the bands. We don’t have the football teams that everybody wants to boost,” says Stephen Kinslow, president of Texas’ Austin Community College . “Most people don’t understand community colleges very well at all.” And by “most people,” he means the graduates of fancy four-year schools who get elected and set budget priorities.
Many politicians and their well-heeled constituents may be under the impression that a community college as described in a promo for NBC’s upcoming comedy Community is a “loser college for remedial teens, 20-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcÃ©es and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity.” But there’s at least one Ivy Leaguer who is trying to help Americans get past the stereotypes and start thinking about community college not as a dumping ground but as one of the best tools the U.S. has to dig itself out of the current economic hole. His name: Barack Obama. The President hasn’t forgotten about the 30 or so community colleges he visited during the 2008 campaign. These institutions are our nation’s trade schools, training 59% of our new nurses as well as cranking out wind-farm technicians and video-game designers jobs that, despite ballooning unemployment overall, abound for adequately skilled workers. Community-college graduates earn up to 30% more than high school grads, a boon that helps state and local governments reap a 16% return on every dollar they invest in community colleges. But our failure to improve graduation rates at these schools is a big part of the achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries. As unfilled jobs continue to head overseas, Obama points to the “national-security implication” of the widening gap. Closing it, according to an April report from McKinsey & Co., would have added as much as $2.3 trillion, or 16%, to our 2008 GDP. Those lost jobs are why Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared in March that two-year schools “will play a big role in getting America back on its feet again.” Obama tapped two former community-college officials for top posts in the Education Department and in May announced a p.r. campaign headed by Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife and a longtime community-college professor to raise awareness about the power of these schools to train new and laid-off workers. But as record numbers of students clamor to enroll, community colleges are struggling with shrinking resources or, at best, trying to maintain the status quo. Even the school where Biden teaches, Northern Virginia Community College, has lost more than 10% of its funding in the past two years and has let go of dozens of full-time professors as it braces for more possible cutbacks. Elsewhere, state budget cuts have led to enrollment caps at some community colleges. And if there aren’t enough seats in classrooms, students can’t get certificates or degrees, and skilled jobs remain unfilled. In short, as the Center for American Progress concluded in a February report, “America’s future economic success may well depend on how we invest in two-year institutions.” Getting Students Ready to WorkThe 1,200 community colleges in the U.S. are especially suited to helping students adapt to a changing labor market. While four-year universities have the financial resources to lure top professors and students, they are by nature slow-moving. Community colleges, on the other hand, are smaller and able to tack quickly in changing winds. They often partner with local businesses and can gin up continuing-education courses midsemester in response to industry needs, getting students in and out and ready to work fast. See TIME’s special report on paying for college.
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