Community colleges poised along the future front

This April 22 HuffPost essay from John Hrabe “Harvard University or Community College? Why the Choice Isn’t As Crazy as It Sounds” has been on my desk for a couple weeks. Take a read.

In essence, college has always been part of class struggle. College itself was once an important socioeconomic step for a talented student from the lower class. Not everyone got to go. Prestigious colleges cost more, making them bastions of generational wealth. College access at all levels improved though the 20th century to the point where college is, or was, more or less accessible to a vast majority of those who wanted to go. A talented student could find a way to go just about anywhere they wanted.

We are in the midst of a change on this front. It’s part political but not entirely. The cost of a college education continues to rise much faster than inflation and is now approaching the rate of economic incentive to go to college. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t go to college. A college degree is required for most professional jobs. Critical thinking and other hallmarks of a liberal arts education are in higher demand, not less. But if you go you’re more likely to emerge with significant, life-altering debt.

You need 2-4 more years of college than your parents did to get their same job. Here on the Iron Range the mines are looking for bachelor’s degrees. The work itself more closely resembles engineering than manual labor.

What Hrabe talks about is the increasing viability of two-year colleges on the way to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now, my personal bias in this matter is significant. I teach at a community college catering to students seeking the A.A. degree to transfer to a four-year school and technical students seeking a short stint of training before entering the workforce directly.

When I was going to high school on the Iron Range we had a nickname for the local community college where many of my friends ended up going. “Harvard on the Highway.” We all laughed. I teach there now and the nickname has been stripped of all irony. For working class people who hope to use higher education to climb the ladder to stability and success, our little college is probably the most financially viable way for them to get to Harvard or even a state college without a murderous amount of debt. For many more students we provide their only opportunity to get a job good enough to support a family.

There is an entire political argument to make here and I’ll make it in due time. More important, however, for current and future college students is the important role community colleges will play in an affordable education. Two years of relatively low tuition can then temper the financial impact of the remaining cost of a bachelor’s degree.

The nature of higher education is changing, but its importance will not. The biggest indicator of success in the future might not be the brand name of the college on your degree, but the quality of your actual education and the amount of debt you have after graduating. It is this realization that makes me proud to be a community college teacher.

(h/t Fred Borgen for the Hrabe article)

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