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A Narrow View of Community Colleges

Long plagued by an acute inferiority complex, community colleges are on the threshold of a new era that has the potential to remake their image. Yet at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that the transformation carries with it certain risks. I was reminded of this after reading Rahm Emanuel's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal ("Chicago's Plan to Match Education With Jobs," Dec. 19). He argues that community colleges need to be regarded as the "first choice for high-skill job training," rather as a "last ditch effort for remedial education." The only way to upgrade the reputation of community colleges is to guarantee that the diplomas they issue have "economic value."

I can certainly understand why "economic value" is a concern in today's protracted recession, but I question if Emanuel understands the full mission of community colleges. They have long existed to provide the general education that is considered a prerequisite for personal growth and participation in a free society, and that satisfies the requirements for transfer to four-year institutions. Consider the latter. The recession has seen a marked increase in the percentage of high school graduates who have decided to spend the first two years pursuing a baccalaureate degree at community colleges before transferring in order to save on tuition. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, about 8 million students enrolled in for-credit courses there in the fall of 2010. This is an increase of more than 20 percent over fall 2007 levels.

But what I find most shortsighted about Emanuel's prescription is that it completely ignores the largely unpredictable nature of the domestic economy. Although today there may indeed be a pressing need for welders, for example, will the same need exist five years from now? If not, community colleges run the risk of shortchanging their students. Even within seemingly recession-proof fields, change is inevitable. This is where the critical thinking skills of a general education are indispensable. There is always a lag between change in the workplace and the development of curriculums and standards. As a result, students are unavoidably caught in the middle.

I also find it strange that Emanuel says nothing about the erosion of vocational education in high schools across the country. Wouldn't giving vocational education at that level the respect it deserves be worthwhile? Our competitors abroad have always recognized that not all students want tertiary education. As a result, they've treated vocational education as worthy alternatives. But we persist in the fiction that everyone is college material. No wonder that community colleges will become the next venue for the debate.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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