George Boggs is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, D.C., an association of more than 1,200 institutions serving more than 10 million students annually. This is his first article for Facilities Manager, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1901, the doors opened at Joliet Junior College in Illinois, beginning a community-responsive movement that has opened access to higher education to the most diverse student body in history. Since their founding over 100 years ago, community colleges have spread throughout the United States (and several in Canada), with campuses located within commuting distance of over 90 percent of the population. Community colleges have changed the paradigm for higher education from having to go away to college to having access to affordable and high quality higher education and training right in local communities. The 1,151 regionally accredited community colleges in the United States now enroll about 11 million credit and non-credit students, many of whom would not otherwise have an opportunity to continue their education.
Overlooked by rating systems based upon exclusivity, community colleges accept all students who can benefit from their services and provide extensive remedial programs, English as a Second Language programs, services for students with disabilities, and many other support services to help their students succeed. The diversity of the student body in America’s community colleges provides a uniquely rich learning environment in which students from different age groups and cultural traditions can share life experiences and learn together. Programs are offered in the evenings and on weekends in addition to daytime hours to serve their many non-traditional students. Community colleges were early adopters of distance learning technologies as a way of further extending access.
Students who begin their studies at community colleges before transferring to baccalaureate degree granting institutions generally do as well as native students. Class sizes are small, and students have opportunities to interact directly with faculty members. Many universities have realized that relationships with community colleges can diversify their own student bodies at the upper division while extending educational opportunity. However, the process of transfer is not as easy as it should be, and AACC (American Association of Community Colleges) is working with AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities) with the support of the Lumina Foundation to improve access to the baccalaureate degree for community college students.
Responding to the economic development and workforce needs of their communities, community colleges offer occupational programs, contract education for local businesses and government, and retraining or lifelong learning opportunities. Community service programs provide general interest courses, and community colleges are often seen as the cultural centers for their communities. A growing international student population and curricular revisions are adding a global perspective to the colleges and their communities.
Traditionally the lowest-funded systems of higher education, community colleges have responded through their resourcefulness. Across the country, community colleges have established partnerships with local businesses, governmental agencies, community-based organizations, and other educational institutions to provide learning facilities for their students and their communities. This resourcefulness is reflected throughout the institutions in the creativity of faculty and staff who are often the leaders in developing innovative methods to promote student learning and to improve services to students.
The capacity of the nation's community colleges will be challenged in the years ahead. Higher education enrollments are expected to swell by nearly 20 percent in the next 20 years. Over 40 percent of these new students are expected to begin their higher education in a community college. This tidal wave of traditional age college students will be entering community colleges at the same time as lifelong learning becomes essential for people to maintain skills needed for employment. Forward thinking college leaders and trustees are planning for these enrollment increases by developing facilities plans and seeking support through bond elections and private fundraising.
Today, communities across America are struggling to deal with an economic downturn. Community college student enrollment is increasing dramatically as the unemployed and the underemployed are coming to our institutions to prepare for a better future. At the same time, state appropriations to higher education, including community colleges, are being dramatically reduced. Colleges have responded by increasing tuition costs for students. In fall 2002, tuition and fees grew by 7.5 percent at private community colleges and 7.9 percent at public community colleges. Even larger increases are expected for fall 2003. Although these increased costs will likely limit access for some financially needy students, the colleges have little choice if they are to maintain sufficient class offerings for students.
Community colleges are well known for their efficiency and cost effectiveness. However, in order to be effective in meeting needs for education and training, community colleges must have the required resources. Because of state budget shortfalls, colleges around the country are dealing with budget reductions that threaten their ability to provide access to all potential students. Funding for education, in particular community colleges, must be seen as an investment in the future and the way to economic recovery.
Community colleges are also preparing for the challenge of faculty and leadership turnover. Many community college faculty members and administrators hired during the expansion period of the 1960s and 1970s are approaching retirement. The people who follow these professionals must understand and protect the core values of the institutions. Recruiting faculty in high-demand disciplines is already difficult for many colleges. The coming years will probably bring even more competition for talented faculty and leaders. On the other hand, the turnover of faculty and staff may provide a window of opportunity to increase diversity. AACC has been working on a number of initiatives to prepare the colleges for the challenge of turnover.
In a world that has become smaller and suddenly more dangerous, community colleges must do their part to encourage global education for our students, and we must help to inform people from other countries about American values and about the importance of valuing diversity. Global education is the key to world peace and understanding and to improving the economy and quality of life for everyone. AACC is responding by instituting a number of new international education services for our member colleges.
Community colleges around the country are responding to the nation's nursing and other health care worker shortage by expanding preparation programs wherever possible. Health care programs, however, are much more expensive to operate than are general education courses. Some states have begun to recognize the cost and are providing financial support for the colleges to expand nursing education programs. Some colleges have been successful in securing needed support from hospitals and other health care facilities in their communities.
A window of opportunity to improve federal education programs is opening in Washington, D.C. AACC has developed positions on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act, and the Carl Perkins Act. We hope to improve the programs that these pieces of legislation authorize and to make it easier for community colleges to respond to student and community needs. AACC is also sponsoring legislation to expand the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit so that it benefits more community college students.
America's community colleges have come of age. They are an important part of the higher education fabric in the United Statesand a significant contributor to the economic well being of the country. With their open door, they are the colleges of opportunity. While they provide transfer students to universities, educational and cultural offerings for their communities, and skilled workers for industry and government, they are likewise dependent upon the universities, their communities, and industry and government for providing new leadership, new faculty, and needed resources. Their continued success in their second century depends upon the strength of the partnerships that are created and whether these unique institutions remain true to their core values of access, community responsiveness, resourcefulness, and a clear focus on teaching and learning.
We are living in a challenging time, but community colleges are making it a time of opportunity, helping students and communities prepare for a better future. Community college services are shaped by the core values of open access, community responsiveness, resourcefulness, and a clear focus on student learning. These values continue to be a lens to judge our actions and a compass to guide us as we plan and make decisions for our institutions. AACC is working to fulfill its responsibilities to provide our member colleges the support they need and to keep the community college movement a vital one.
Click here to view the Community College Fact Sheet.