Community Colleges as ‘Potential Saviors of the Economy’

March 5, 2010 by Emsi Burning Glass

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Nimble. Responsive to the training needs of the workforce. Economic drivers for their regions. All these have been used to describe the strengths of community colleges. But let’s throw out another description:

“Potential saviors of the economy.”

That comes from University Business, which has a lengthy look at community colleges in its latest edition. The article hits on renewed attention from lawmakers that has put two-year training providers in the spotlight.

The attention partly explains why full-time enrollment at community colleges nationwide has increased 24% in the last two years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“Never in my life would I have expected community colleges to be called potential saviors of the economy,” says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “When the downturn started and people were being laid off, community colleges sent teams into companies to talk to workers about their options,” he explains. The importance of community colleges progressed from there.

As the recession drags on and more people turn to higher ed as a way to weather the storm, community colleges are increasingly in demand. “I think we are going to drive this economy back to where it needs to be,” says Mary Spangler, president of Houston Community College.

The articles also tackles the funding and budget issues facing community colleges, as well as the importance of articulation agreements to ensure community college students can move on to get bachelor degrees — and beyond.

Articulation agreements are also needed because long-term economic recovery will require them. “As the economy recovers, the demand over the next several years for BA and higher degrees will be pretty robust,” says Tony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University (D.C.). According to CEW projections, there will be around 13 million job openings for people with certificates or AA degrees and 17 million for holders of a BA and higher from 2008 to 2018.

“When employers start hiring again, it will be across the entire economy,” says Tony Pals, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He highlights information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 2009 unemployment rates among people who hold BA and higher degrees are lower than those with associate degrees. Although, AA holders have faired better than those without any college education. “For the nation’s economic well being, we need to increase the number of workers who complete some form of postsecondary study,” Pals says.

Why have community colleges proven to be so valuable? Well, here’s just one example: Valencia Community College in Florida, an EMSI client, has partnered with a local high school to offer a program that lets students formally work toward a college degree at a full-fledged Valencia campus next door to their high school.

According to the Orlando Sentinel story, “An added bonus for students who shoot for an associate degree: “If kids stay on track, they can save thousands of dollars,” (Principal Rob) Anderson said.