A funny thing happens when you start giving the same elevator pitch: You start getting the same responses. When I speak about BridgeYear, I almost always get the question “Why community college?” It’s a great question, on so many levels.
On a personal level, I myself did not attend community college. (In fact, until about my sophomore year of college, I erroneously assumed that “college” meant getting a Bachelor’s degree.) Community college, however, is personal in a different way. For the students I taught while working for a majority-minority high school, community college is often the de facto option for higher education. As some of the few institutions in our country that are both open-access and (relatively) financially affordable, community colleges are still the primary source of higher education for our country’s most underserved populations. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45% of our nation’s undergraduates are in community college. For minority undergraduates, this percentage is even higher: 52% of all African-American undergraduates and 57% of their Hispanic counterparts are in community college. If you are a minority student seeking a college education, you are more likely than not going to enroll at a community college.
On a systemic level, community colleges are critical for workforce development as they provide workforce certificate programs and Associate’s degrees that fulfill middle-skill position requirements. (Middle-skill positions are those that require more than a high school degree but less than a Bachelor’s.) Although middle-skill positions have been in high demand, especially in booming metropolitan areas, many communities are experiencing a “middle-skills gap.” Without strong community college graduation rates and programs that are aligned with industry demands, employers will struggle to find talent for the next generation of a community’s workforce.
On an “I’m an MBA student and I really want to do something good for this world” level, it’s hard not to be passionate about community colleges. There is so much need from individual students and entire communities for these institutions to deliver quality, accessible education, and yet there are also so many barriers community colleges must overcome. To name just a few:
- A high percentage of incoming community college students are not considered academically “college-ready,” meaning they will need to enroll in developmental classes – a pathway that significantly lowers graduation rates.
- Ever changing industry standards and technology requires frequent updating of curricular programs and resources, something budget-constrained public institutions find hard to do.
- Being open-access means community colleges must cater to a wide range of students – everyone from the newly graduated 18 year old who wants to get a welding certificate to the 75 year old retiree who wants to brush up on specific skills.
All that being said, I’m heartened by the recent innovations in this space and hope that BridgeYear will continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible to accomplish. I can only believe that where there are needs and barriers, there are also opportunities.