Community College: Making a Difference

By: Dr. Martha J. Kanter, Executive Director, College Promise Campaign

Why National Community College Month?Dr. Martha J. Kanter

Community colleges change lives and build productive, happier, and healthier futures for students, families, and their communities, but they don’t get the credit they deserve These vital institutions educate nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates and prepare students for a vast range of jobs and careers. They educate our firefighters and nurses. They work with companies to train people for new jobs. They are cost-effective, located in just about every community across the country, and, as open access institutions, they are welcoming to all students. Community and technical colleges deserve a month of their own so the communities they serve can learn about their many contributions to society and so we can let potential students know what they offer.

We celebrated community colleges this April with as much fanfare as we could muster. In our Month of Action, we’ve organized scholarship competitions to tell student stories. We traveled to Phi Theta Kappa’s annual conference in April to engage with thousands of community college honors students.

And this year, we’re focusing on why community colleges are a smart investment in our nation’s future – how communities are making the community college free to expand access for more students to attend to these vital institutions and succeed in their lives. We started the month by sharing some of the critical challenges that the nation’s workforce and system of higher education face. There are now 6.3 million jobs unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the needed skills and education. The next week, we highlighted the varied courses of study available at community colleges. We toured a cybersecurity lab and a nursing simulation center. We also released a video that profiled nine unique career pathways, each at community colleges leading the way with College Promise programs. During week three of Community College month, our theme was “Community College for Everyone.” The highlight of that week was our visit to Phi Theta Kappa’s Convention, celebrating its 100th Anniversary where hundreds of students took action with the College Promise Campaign to build support for free community college. Our final week is all about the outcomes of free community college programs that are underway across the country, sharing the impacts they are having on their students and communities.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about community college?
Some people think community colleges are second-rate or that they’re not the best avenue for students to build a future — that attending community college is a mark of some failure. Others may believe that community college – or any college – isn’t for everyone, that students not heading directly to a four-year college or university should focus on specific job training and forgo college altogether. Still more believe that the cost of administering a community college puts a strain on a local economy. None of those notions could be further from the truth. Results from our Month of Action highlight the extraordinary value of our nation’s community colleges as we celebrated their impact throughout the last four weeks.

We know that for every dollar invested in a community college, there’s an average six dollar return on economic benefits. Communities need to ask themselves: where would we be without a thriving community college? What better place is there for local residents to get an education, train for a job, and become prepared to give back to their local economy? People don’t really think about this, but many community colleges are among the largest employers in their regions and their students are important consumers of what their communities have to offer.

Above all, community college is for everyone. At a time when everyone needs at least one or two years of education beyond high school, America’s community colleges are equipped to educate students from all walks of life and to provide local businesses and industry with a talented pipeline to jobs and the economy. Community colleges are working round the clock with industries to build programs and courses designed to prepare students for specific careers in current and emerging industries.

And, as we reminded everyone this month, there’s a wide range of program opportunities at a community college, everything from nursing and forestry, to cybersecurity and health care technical training. The choices are abundant!

But perhaps the biggest myth of all is that community college is cheap, that it’s affordable for all. It’s true that community college tuition is far less than at most other colleges and universities, but that doesn’t make it affordable for the students who most need the opportunity. It’s a matter of perspective. The full cost of attending college — paying for rent, food, textbooks, transportation, and childcare – are high. Did you know that twenty-five percent of community college students are parents getting their first or second chance at a quality education? And two-thirds of community college students work while they’re in college.

Far too many hardworking students forgo going to college altogether, fearing that college is beyond their means. And many community college students who do enroll are single parents, first-generation students, immigrants, or other people with severely limited financial means.

It’s hard for so many community college students to succeed when they have to juggle working full-time while trying to focus on their education. Studies indicate the number one deterrent barring people from going on to college is cost. And the financial strain is the number one reason community college students drop out.

That’s why we keep pushing for free community college. If we can relieve the financial burden of community college students – at a minimum covering tuition and fees – we can ensure that more people will enroll in a community college. And if we do our part to help these underfunded institutions give students more guidance and support along their college journey, we know that they’ll be better able to finish their college program.

Community colleges present a tremendous opportunity for so many students. What about community college is so transformative for students?
Community colleges offer new opportunities for everyone – returning citizens, veterans re-entering civilian life, students rebooting their academic experiences, and parents returning to the workforce. At any stage in life, community colleges offer their students a new start. Community colleges do an amazing job transforming the lives of first-generation college students and any student who believes that college is beyond his or her reach. These vital institutions are available to meet the needs of any hardworking student seeking a college degree, a technical certificate, or foundational knowledge gleaned from taking a class or two. The majority of students in our nation’s 1,132 community colleges are the first in their family to go to college. And millions of them come from groups that are low-income and historically underrepresented in higher education. In rural regions of our nation, community colleges are often the only place where residents can to train for a new career when the farm goes under or an industry leaves town.

The College Promise Campaign has been a champion for free community college around the country. What are some of the big wins and what work still needs to be done?

The biggest win of all is that College Promise programs are taking off all over the country! The movement is growing exponentially: in cities large and small, in counties and townships, and with statewide programs for youth and/or adults in seventeen states.

Across the country, from Hawaii to North Carolina, from San Francisco to Lansing to Boston, from rural regions in California to small towns in Indiana and South Carolina, local leaders are establishing and supporting College Promise programs. Communities are designing their programs modeled after successful initiatives that Long Beach, El Dorado, and Kalamazoo put in place in the last decade and learning lessons from College Promise leaders in Detroit, Wichita, Milwaukee, the greater Houston region, Jacksonville, and so many more.

In the two and a half years since we launched the Campaign, the number of College Promise programs has more than quadrupled, with more than 200 programs in 44 States. And what, you may ask, is driving this movement? The growing understanding of the absolute need for Americans to get an education beyond high school, whether that’s an associate’s degree, a technical certificate, or a bachelor’s degree. Communities and states now recognize that and understand that they won’t have a well-prepared workforce unless residents have a credential above and beyond a high school diploma. They also understand that by removing financial barriers that bar so many from believing that college is within their means, they will build a college-going culture for more residents to get the education and training they need. College Promise programs cover tuition and fees and provide support to help students succeed at a community or technical college. And some extend the College Promise to four-year colleges and universities. The most successful programs are those that build in support services to help ensure that students not only start but complete their course of study. They incorporate educational interventions and incentives that include services like counseling, tutoring, and mentoring to help students finish their degrees and certificates successfully with a sense of guided purpose. And any viable College Promise program must be financially sustainable. A College Promise can’t honestly be a ‘Promise’ unless it can be sustained into the future. Every program that emerges serves as an inspiration to the next community or state. And that helps to build momentum!

So many Promise Programs stand out as “wins.” Here are just a few of many outstanding examples:

The Tennessee Promise has been up and running since 2014 when it became the first in the nation to offer students free community college. Since then, it has served as an inspiration to other communities and states throughout the country given its early success at building a college-going culture and boosting the number of students who not only start, but complete their education at a community or technical college. Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN) lead his state to get this highly regarded performance scholarship, mentoring and community service off the ground by putting together a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and leaders from the business and nonprofit sectors. With all of its early success, other states have looked at the Tennessee model to use some of its elements to build their Promise programs, especially the support services to boost students’ success. So that’s a win. Every successful program is an impetus for another community or state to build a Promise.

This week, as we wrap up Community College Month, we are poised to celebrate the launch of the Dallas County Promise, indeed a big win for the people of Dallas County and the College Promise Movement. Dallas County educates more than 10 percent of all Texans, and when this Promise is entirely up and running, the program will serve students from all 107 high schools in the county! That’s more students than in many states. Hat’s off to the Dallas County Community College Foundation, Dallas business and nonprofit leaders, and Dr. Joe May, the Dallas Community College District Chancellor, for their tireless work to launch the Dallas County Promise.

About two years ago, Dr. May brought a small cross-sector group of Dallas County leaders to Tennessee on a fact-finding mission to investigate the Tennessee Promise and its mentoring infrastructure, TnAchieves. Following that trip, the coalition took what it learned from Tennessee, incorporated a lot of its elements, and added a few more of its own to launch the Dallas County Promise. This kind of collaboration is what we’d like to see throughout the country: communities inspiring others to launch free community college programs, ones that are designed to ensure that students not only start but complete their education.

Get started building a College Promise program in your community –