“Community College Saved Me”: Honoring Community College Awareness Month
April is Community College Awareness Month, and this year we have plenty of reasons to honor these important institutions. In addition to providing quality, affordable education to local students, community colleges are support and resource centers during times of crisis. These vital institutions have come through in a range of important ways during the pandemic.
The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) explains: "Community colleges throughout the country proved their worth to their communities over the past year, as they came to the aid of students as well as to their greater communities. For example, when the pandemic took the country by storm, community colleges immediately responded by accelerating education for nursing and other healthcare students, by lending dormitories to exhausted hospital workers for needed rest, by mass-producing masks and other personal protective equipment using fabrication facilities, and much more."
Another way in which community colleges have taken center stage this year: First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is a community college English professor. She taught for 15 years at Delaware Technical College, and she will continue her work at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), where she taught from 2009-2017 when she was Second Lady of the United States. She is the first FLOTUS in history to hold a paying job while serving as First Lady.
Dr. B, as her students and colleagues call her, remarked in comments she delivered at the 2015 Community College National Legislative Summit: "the responsibility for educating students is not the student's alone. It is a responsibility that belongs to all of us. Community colleges are uniquely positioned to fulfill this responsibility -- to meet the needs of the actual community where they live -- whether that means partnering with local employers on credentialing, working to make sure classes are flexible for working families, or supporting a seamless transition to a four-year degree. Because, we all reap the benefits when our citizens are well-educated and well-trained. It means that our economies are more vibrant, and our future is brighter."
Community colleges are important community resource centers that make education affordable and accessible. This April we honor these valuable institutions for higher learning.
The Lowdown on Community Colleges
According to Statista's Erin Duffy, as of 2020 there were 942 public community colleges across the US. Community colleges offer an affordable, streamlined approach to credentialing. While traditionally, these institutions offered two-year associate degrees, Mary Fulton, writing for the Education Commission of the States (ECS) points out that almost half of the states "allow community colleges to award bachelor's degrees as one strategy to meet workforce demands, increase access to educational and career advancement opportunities, address affordability and raise attainment rates."
This affordable credentialling can be especially helpful to adult learners. Kevin E. Drumm writes in "The New American College Town": "As the nation's economy becomes increasingly specialized, as where one studies becomes less important than what one studies, and as the cost of earning a bachelor's degree continues to rise, the importance of community colleges to their communities should only grow. Further, community colleges are by, for, and of the community, so who better to drive economic initiatives."
Community colleges offer a good solution when it comes to affordable credentialing and upskilling. Surprisingly, though, community college enrollment has been down nationally during the pandemic. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports: "A 13.1 percent drop in freshman enrollment (or over 327,500 students) from last fall is unprecedented. Sharp declines at public two-year institutions (over 207,200 students, 21% decrease) contributed the most to the decline, falling at a rate almost 20 times higher than the prior year's decline (pre-pandemic)."
A Community of Believers
Community colleges launch students into the workforce as well as into other academic programs. These institutions are an affordable way to experiment with different professional avenues to decide which one might be a fit.
Phil Ollenberg, assistant registrar at Bow Valley College shares: "Community colleges are plugged into their local market: They're responsive to the employment and economic need of their local communities and region. They're there to help get people employed and drive the local economy."
In his role, Ollenberg watches and discusses higher education trends in the US and Canada. He explains that he appreciates community colleges because "They're focused on students, not on research projects/endowments: When I studied at and worked for a big university, I always felt like the students were second-fiddle to the research endowments and faculty research projects. Community colleges' core is in teaching and graduating students in responsive fields." Ollenberg also finds community college to be a good value for students. He explains: "They're generally excellent financial choices . . . with a closer focus on teaching and graduating students, their spending is more reigned-in leading to significantly lower tuition costs and a better investment by students and their families."
Genesis Gutierrez has experienced this firsthand as a community college student. She explains some of the lessons that community college students can garner: "You understand how to work with all kinds of people who come from all walks of life. . . You understand the real-world before you even graduate from college, something I've learned is very hard for students who did not attend community college."
Gutierrez sees community college as "the smarter choice. Not only do you save a ton of money, it gives you more freedom to explore your career options wisely without feeling pressured. Once you hit a four-year university, you're pressured to pick a major and a career vs in community college you have time to explore your options and still do activities outside of academics."
"A Judgment-Free Zone"
Gutierrez points out that community college is where students go to better themselves and learn who they are and what they're capable of; the experience is both skill and esteem building.
Gutierrez explains: "What makes me so proud to be associated with community college is being surrounded by students who truly had to create their own unique path to whatever they chose to do with their degrees/careers. Students who just want to better themselves but may not have the means to or students who just need time to themselves to figure it all out. It's a judgment-free zone. You're truly just focused on you and your own needs."
"Community College Saved Me."
Gutierrez shares a success story that speaks to the true value of community colleges: "I graduated high school with a 2.8 GPA and over 100+ absences." She writes. "I had no idea what I wanted to do and was more than frustrated with my future. . . Community college saved me. I learned to care about my grades because of the incredible support system I had at the college (counselors, staff, coaches, teachers). . . I learned to love school and my future. Community college gave me the option to attend universities I would've never been able to go [to] straight out of high school. (I got into every school I applied to UCLA, UCR, UCI, AND UCSB). I believe it's an important message to share. . . There are truly other ways to get to your dream university."
Community colleges give students an affordable avenue to refine their skills, hone their talents, and pursue their dreams.