Can community colleges once again meet America’s educational needs?
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“Dance with the girl who brung ya!” That’s something my dad’s been known to say, and it’s been on my mind recently.
Last month I was honored to attend the fourth and final regional summit on community colleges. Community college leaders from 14 Western states gathered to highlight the paramount role that we must play in reaching the president’s goal that the United States, once again, have the highest college attainment rate in the world.
Providing access to education through community colleges is not only an intellectual but a personal passion of mine.
You see, I am a second-generation community college graduate. My mother and father both attended the same small two-year college in the late 1940s that I attended in the early ’70s.
That “junior college” was founded in 1925, when the primary need in the country was to create a low-cost, accessible pathway to the bachelor’s degree for average American high school students. The ability to complete the first two years of undergraduate education close to home made this possible for millions, including me.
After World War II, with a need to recover from war and convert from military industries to consumer goods production, community colleges again answered the call by providing widespread education for skilled jobs.
Then, in 1948, the Truman Commission called for the creation of a national network of community colleges to serve local needs of communities across the country. This network came to fruition during the ’60s and provided the vast numbers of the “baby boom” with educational opportunity by opening 457 community colleges, more than doubling the number that existed before that decade.
Our very own Colorado Mountain College was born at this time, and proudly took its place in the movement.
In addition to transfer and technical education, community colleges have embraced opportunities in lifelong learning for adults and developmental education for millions needing preparation for college-level coursework.
Today, enrollment at America’s 1,200 community colleges exceeds 13 million students, and represents more than half of the nation’s undergraduates. It’s incredible but not surprising for a distinctly American invention that was founded on the belief that educational opportunity should be open to all seekers.
The first White House Summit on Community Colleges was convened in October 2010 by President Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and herself a community college professor. The purpose of this summit was to address the president’s goal of regaining the highest college attainment rate in the world.
“All of higher education must contribute to reaching this goal – but community colleges will be the linchpin,” stated U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The president has called for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020 to ensure the vitality of our nation’s economy.”
Four regional summits followed on community college campuses in Philadelphia, Houston, Indianapolis and San Diego. These summits collectively gathered constituents from across the nation to discuss strategies for increasing graduates and creating the most competitive workforce in the world.
The vitality of our nation is once again at stake, perhaps in a more complex way than ever before.
Can we do it again? If we follow my father’s advice to “dance with the girl who brung ya,” I think we can.
Brad Bankhead is vice president of student affairs at Colorado Mountain College.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.