A few weeks ago the DC Public Education Fund hosted a young professionals event, with a trivia contest. I guest hosted the trivia and one of the prizes was a chance to get guest posted here on Eduwonk. So here is a word from one of the winners:
By Tarsi Dunlop, Aaron Goldstein, Jeff Raines & Kevin Suyo
The mainstream conversation around higher education tends to focus on traditional four-year institutions, while community colleges are more likely to be mentioned just in passing. In the United States, many consider education to be a key component of increased social and economic mobility. As Millennials, we believe that everyone should be encouraged to reach their fullest potential when it comes to post-secondary education. Simultaneously, we value access to, and the opportunity for, higher education because we believe that no single path suits the vast diversity of individual circumstances in the 21st Century. Community colleges are an integral part of the education narrative and they deserve a more balanced assessment than the label of “last resort.”
Community colleges, as post-secondary institutions, frequently enroll students who might not otherwise continue on to higher education. They are lower in cost, less strenuous in entry requirements, and more flexible with timing requirements. These characteristics better suit the student population they serve: diverse in age and race, older, more likely to enroll part time, and more likely to be first generation college students. Resulting economic payoffs include such as increased salary, connections to local communities and better job opportunities, especially when community colleges provide an affordable way to gain job training for targeted STEM careers where job growth is projected to grow by 17% before 2018. Critics of community colleges point to low graduation rates; the low number of students who move on to a four-year institution and complete a degree; and the persistent salary gap between those who attained an associate’s degree prior to their bachelor’s and those who earned their bachelor’s without a prior associate degree. These are valid concerns that warrant discussion, additional research and proposed solutions; they should not be used as reasons to ignore community colleges and their valuable contributions.
At a time of high unemployment and general economic hardship, community colleges are a valuable resource for those seeking additional training or a career change. New Jersey is a unique example of collaboration between community colleges and the state. The Consortium of Economic and Workforce Development was founded in 2004 by the state’s community colleges; it brings together their combined resources into a singular education and training hub for businesses and industries. An Executive Order, signed in 2003, created the New Jersey Community College Compact, which forms the basis of this partnership and establishes the 19 community colleges as preferred venue for workforce development and training that is vital for New Jersey’s economic health and growth.
Young people today face a number of difficult choices when it comes to higher education. Statistics cannot always capture nuance, but they are telling: the average graduate has $25,000 in student loan debt, topping cumulative credit card debt for the first time; Almost 6 million 25-to-34-year-olds live at home, an increase of 26 percent since the recession began in 2007; and 28% of 18-24 year olds and 16% of 24-35 year olds are underemployed. Students do receive scholarships, get financial aid, and some have families that are able to finance their college education. And yes, some will find full-time work, in their field of interest, upon graduation that will enable them to manage their accumulated debt. While potential earnings range, from an estimated $500,000 more for someone with a bachelor’s degree compared to someone who graduates with a high school diploma, to 5 to 8% for each year of community college completed, one can make the argument for higher education. Given these realities, President Obama’s recent community college initiative is timely and the Millennial Generation should be aware of the ways in which community colleges can support their pursuits and ambitions.
Given the current economic uncertainty today, and the challenges facing America’s middle class, community colleges offer an additional choice that does not have to limit an individual’s future opportunities. No institution of higher education can meet all the unique needs of college age students, or adults returning to school. We are a country that values individual success, in which education often plays a key role. As Millennials, we value individual ambition and achievement while recognizing no ‘one solution fits all.’ Therefore, we also advocate for community colleges as an attractive option, whether for students who are unable to attend a traditional institution or for adult students wishing to change professions or enhance their professional skills. Easily adaptable to real life circumstances, community colleges have a unique role in education; as such, they certainly can and should be part of the debate.
Aaron Goldstein is a graduating senior at American University and DC-International Regional Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. Kevin Suyo works on higher education financing issues at the U.S. Department of Education. Tarsi Dunlop works at the Learning First Alliance and is the former Director of Operations for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network.Jeffrey Raines is the President of the American University chapter of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network.