Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

For Community Colleges and Their Students, The Time is Now

September 27, 2011

Unemployment is high everywhere, but it is hitting young people especially hard. Of the jobs available in this tough economy, most require a postsecondary degree, which can be very costly. Young people have difficulty covering all of life’s expenses, much less paying for school. 

What can we do to help our young people succeed?  We must find ways to keep a postsecondary education affordable, and we owe it to our young people to help more of them be successful.  Poverty in America is increasing, and education is the most reliable and consistent way to avoid that fate.

For millions of Americans, our community colleges are a proven pathway to the middle class.  And, that’s why, even in spite of the challenges we face, I’m optimistic for the future of America.

Community colleges are uniquely structured to help today’s student. They come to college with life challenges – work, families, academics – that make it difficult to complete their studies. Happily, we are making progress in helping more of them achieve their dreams.  Community colleges are smartly and nimbly attuned to the needs of their communities, and they have shown the world how to remove barriers to college for people who are otherwise shut out. 

But we need to help more of these students successfully complete their educations – in America right now, barely 20 percent of community college students earn a degree within three years of enrolling.

To improve their success, we should be focused on three things. First, going to college must result in students gaining the knowledge and skills that help them launch a career.  Second, barriers -- like increasing tuitions, schedules that conflict with work schedules, classes held in only brick-and-mortar locations, and inadequate support systems -- must be removed.  Third, students must be engaged and motivated, and they must complete their programs with a valuable credential.

More students will complete their degrees at community colleges if we offer them solid support. For example, at Sinclair Community College we have found that a one week “boot camp” in math, reading, or writing provides just enough of a refresher that many students are now testing into college-level courses, thereby avoiding remedial classes and saving them time and money as they progress toward a degree.  We have also found that counselors providing constant guidance throughout the academic term to at-risk students results in these students performing as well as all other students in the classroom.

Community colleges now serve more than 7 million students, and are surviving with extraordinarily meager resources. Yet we are virtually the only pathway from poverty to the middle class for many who seek it. For our working classes, and those on the edge of poverty, a high-quality, affordable, accessible education is their best shot at a better life for themselves and their families. We owe it to them to do all we can to make that experience a successful one.

 

 

 
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