On April 21, 2012, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) released a report that calls for dramatic changes to America’s community colleges to ensure U. S. competitiveness. (Augustine Gallego, Kay McClenney, and Jerry Sue Thornton, Reclaiming the American Dream, A Report From the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges) Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, AACC’s CEO, said in an accompanying Press Release that
higher education is struggling with low student success rates and employers complain about inadequate student preparation for the job market, which… contributes to the erosion of our middle class.
According to the report, more than 1,100 community colleges enroll about 44 percent of all U. S. undergraduates. Over the past several decades, the percentage of the American workforce with associate degrees has skyrocketed. In 1973, just 12 percent of the workforce had an associate degree; by 2007, that figure was 27 percent. But six years after entering college, fewer than half of students seeking a degree or certificate have attained that goal, transferred to a baccalaureate institution, or are still enrolled.
The commission, co-chaired by three community-college veterans, concluded:
What we find today are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions.
Campus leaders understand that far too many students are arriving at college unprepared for college-level work, that developmental education as traditionally practiced is dysfunctional, that barriers to transfer inhibit student progress, that degree and certificate completion rates are too low, and that attainment gaps across groups of students are unacceptably wide.
The report provides, for emulation, several examples of successful working relationships between community colleges and local employers. But too many students enroll in courses for which there are few employment opportunities and too few students enroll in courses for ”high-demand fields paying a family-supporting wage.”
Addressing that problem, a 2012 ACT study analyzed the need in 18,000 jobs for “three essential skills: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information.” These skills were required for 98 percent of jobs “in occupations paying a wage sufficient to support a family.” But “community college graduates were, on average, adequately skilled for just 57 percent of those desirable occupations.”
The commission recommended that community colleges implement strategies to:
Increase completion rates of students earning community college credentials (certificate and associate degrees) by 50 percent by 2020, while preserving access, enhancing quality, and eradicating attainment gaps associated with income, race, ethnicity, and gender.
Close the American skills gaps by sharply focusing career and technical education on preparing students with the knowledge and skills required for existing and future jobs in regional and global economies.
President Obama commented about the role of community colleges in a July 2009 speech:
We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs—or even keep those jobs here in America—without the training offered by community colleges….We’ll challenge these schools to find new and better ways to help students catch up on the basics, like math and science, that are essential to our competitiveness.
At the start of my administration I set a goal for America: By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world….Today I’m announcing the most significant down payment yet on reaching the goal…It’s called the American Graduation Initiative. It will reform and strengthen community colleges like this one…so they get the resources that students and schools need—and the results that workers and businesses demand. Through this plan, we seek to help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates in the next decade.
(The White House, Remarks by the President on the American Graduation Initiative, Macomb Community College, Warren, Michigan, July 14, 2009)
The AACC commission also called for working with K‒12 schools to implement the following recommendation:
Dramatically improve college readiness: By 2020, reduce by half the number of students entering college unprepared for rigorous college-level work and double the number of students who complete developmental education programs and progress to successful completion of related freshman-level courses.
One of the benefits of growing old is enhanced historical perspective. Ten years ago, in Centering America (2002), I wrote that “nearly a generation after” the scathing National Commission on Excellence in Education report A Nation at Risk (April 1983), “many of our high schools were still abject failures in providing needed skills.” In some cases, “a whopping 60 percent to 70 percent of students are required to take remedial—known these days as ‘developmental’—English or math classes before enrolling in college-level courses that count towards a degree.”
This continues to emasculate the prospects of many of our youth as they enter the relentlessly competitive Knowledge Age. There, to their chagrin, they first learn that performance and merit as well as effective skills—competency, not self-esteem—are the basis for succeeding. Liberals charge that these children are ‘deprived of a fair starting point in life by the free market.’ But it is our education system that condemns the poorly educated to poverty and the rest of Americans to supporting them….Our people and politicians should give high priority to assuring that all students acquire—in high school—the skills needed to obtain the decent entry level jobs that will start them on the road to realizing the American dream.
Ten more years have passed and the tide of mediocrity has not receded in many high schools. Ironically, AACC now seeks to reduce, by 2020—nearly four decades after A Nation at Risk—the 60 percent of high school graduates still requiring at least one developmental education course. Could this be because high schools too often graduate students who should fail, but who are eligible to enter community colleges due to their open admissions policies? And could the failure of remedial education at community colleges be validating the conclusion—“college cannot remedy the deficiencies of primary and secondary education”—of the Hudson Institute report (Richard W. Judy and Carol D’Amico, Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century, 1997)?
Further, the White House has announced that its American Graduation Initiative will “improve remedial…education programs, accelerating students’ progress and integrating developmental classes into academic and vocational classes.” (The White House, Fact Sheet on the American Graduation Initiative, July 14, 2009) Could this mean “mainstreaming,” placing unprepared students in classes with those not requiring remedial education? Such a step would delay the progress and dilute the job prospects of qualified students. It could replicate our high school tragedy, where everyone becomes more equal at the lowest common denominator of mediocrity.
In Remediating America, Peter Wood argues that:
Turning out more college graduates won’t make us prosperous or productive. A nation’s economic growth certainly depends on the productivity of its people, but productivity and national prosperity have a limited relationship to higher-education attainment. Some countries with low post-secondary degree attainment rates (e.g. Germany, Switzerland) have very high rates of productivity and prosperity…What a nation needs to thrive economically is not necessarily a population where college degrees are commonplace, but a hard-working, ingenious, and versatile workforce.
A high school education must once again provide the basic skills in reading, writing, math, science, and history that produced competent graduates before the Gramscian Cultural Revolution, including the knowledge of Western civilization as NAS recommends. We must recover the purpose of secondary education rather than continue to waste money—students’ and ours—by sending those who do not belong to community colleges—to “catch up on the basics.”
Next week’s article will discuss democracy and social responsibility.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).