Community colleges have long been maligned by the misperception that they were not as good (read rigorous) as their university siblings. In reality, community colleges have a very different mission and serve a much broader student demographic than most traditional four-year universities.

With his announcement of a plan to move $12 billion in much-needed assistance to community colleges, President Obama may help catapult this uniquely American institution on a Cinderella-like ascension in our society.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the nation’s nearly 2,400 community colleges serve over 11 million students. The average community college student is 29 years old; 60% are women, 35% are minorities, and 39% are the first in their family to attend college. The community college system produces 59% of our country’s new nurses each year; 80% of our firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs; and 41% of community colleges offer their students degrees earned totally online.

The rapidly changing economy has helped boost community college enrollment, but that boom has aggravated some long-standing problems within the system. The student population most drawn to community college includes people who are more likely to need remediation or support services: displaced workers and other older adults who have been out of high school for awhile before attempting college level work; persons who dropped out of school and returned later to earn GEDs and complete their education; new immigrants, many trying to learn the skills to become full citizens; and students who may not have seriously considered college at all until their senior year in high school or even after graduation. Community college exists to give people options and opportunities. For some it is their second chance at a more successful life; for others it is their only chance.

Lest we forget, however, some of the students who come to community college are “ready” for four years of college, academically, but may not be ready financially. Not every child who graduates high school does so in the top ten percent of the class. Where do all those average and below-average students go? Many of them end up at community college. So do many laid off or frustrated workers, single mothers, new citizens, and thousands of others looking for a fresh start.

The community colleges do face serious challenges. If you haven’t seen it, check out the John Merrow piece, “Discounted Dreams” on struggles of community college students. Also helpful is the report Basic Skills for ComplexLives, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. One problem Merrow and others have exposed is the resistance among four-year institutions to accepting thetransfer credits of community college students (primarily for economic not academic reasons).

Community colleges are, in general, not as well-funded as other post-secondary institutions, but they generally cost students and their parents much less. Usually, community colleges get the leftover educational funding after PK-12 and universities. [In MS, the four-year colleges are called “Institutions of Higher Learning” – making the community colleges what–institutions of “lower” learning? The power of perception should not be underestimated]. Nevertheless, community colleges have proven themselves resilient and resourceful in providing access to education for broader and broader segments of our population, and the high-profile push from the Administration may begin to change not only the perception of community college, but its under-resourced reality.

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