PARTNERSHIPS: real Community Colleges

Community colleges have become the linchpin in the American Dream and the American Way, evermore so as corporate power presses its assault upon the Bill of Rights. The pinning is plain to see at many points. Let’s ponder four:

++ They have become the largest provider of undergraduate study and credit.

++ As the largest engine of formal workforce training and development, they lead education in occupational certification, bound to grow bigger in the surging age of technology.

++ They’ve become popularly known as the colleges of lifelong learning, providing access to new skills and upgrades of old ones. They are the first choice of classroom teachers for courses earning recertification.

++ Women have made them the springboard to upward mobility in both personal and professional pursuits.

Women are largely responsible for making community colleges the leader in undergraduate study, leveraging their climb in convenience and less cost. They are rewarded now in degree completion: three out of every five BS and BA awarded today are going to women. This upward mobility is being fed liberally by Pell Grants. At few community colleges today do men match women in capitalizing on Pell, which has become the greatest benefit to colleges and students ever enacted by Congress.

Total Pell enrollment now dwarfs the combined access of five GI Bills, which put the first veterans in college 70 years ago. The Pell Grant was largely inspired by the successes of the GI Bills. The author, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-RI, was the son of New England-New York aristocracy, whose mansions doting Newport Beach have been a leading tourist attraction for a century. When the infamy of Pearl Harbor drew the USA officially into World War II, young Pell made a natural choice. He enlisted in the Coast Guard, whose National Academy was his virtual neighbor. In the Coast Guard he immediately discovered that his mates from humble homes were as bright as he was. He could see that with college educations, their service to country could go on growing long after the war. Once elected to the US Senate, some 15 years later, he was in a position to do something about it. It was the mark of his greatness as a lawmaker that he was consumed by two priorities: protecting the oceans, bringing the less advantaged into higher education. Priorities that better serve human progress would be hard to choose.

As the linchpin of the American Dream, community colleges loom large in still other perspectives. Viewed by their contribution to the professions, their power is much like that of the first GI Bill, which propelled legions of men, and a few women, who had not even dreamed of college before the war, into careers in the foremost professions — law, medicine, dentistry, and education itself. Over at least the last half century, the first colleges growing the largest professions have been and are the community colleges. These are the professions of health care, classroom teaching, law enforcement, and emergency services.

Community college administrators of some large state systems have been boasting that their state’s largest graduate school of education is their colleges, because teachers in the field are using them more widely for courses that maintain their certification than getting those courses from universities. Cost and convenience are obvious reasons. The director of a community college foundation in Florida told me four decades ago that almost two-thirds of the classroom teachers then on the job had started college in the community colleges. It was probably no coincidence but that was about the time he was elected to the Legislature and Florida empowered all of its community colleges to provide bachelor degrees in education. Imagine a whole crop of classroom teachers starting out unencumbered by a university mindset! Part of that mindset, of course, is taking students for granted. That’s what universities have always done. Community colleges are advantaged in knowing they can’t afford that bad habit.

Adding these patterns together easily explains how and why a community college movement has grown into the third revolution of American higher education. The first was the magnificent Land-Grants, which brought every State a new college of engineering, while it elevated agricultural science into a national priority that would turn the American breadbasket into the most productive in the world, guided by the widely dispersed, qualified advisors at the grassroots popularly known as “county agents.” Both Dr. Bonny Frank (my wife) and I shared the great pleasure this month of serving as discussion leaders for an in-service day of forums that was the formal beginning of the 2015-16 college year for faculty and staff of Garden City College in Kansas. Billed as “LEGENDS … LEGACY,” the program also featured several civic leaders who were movers and shakers in both Garden City and the state. While leading the morning forum on “The Meaning of Community Colleges to the American Dream,” I chose the linchpin theme, as already outlined.

Dr. Bonny Franke has become a busy author since leaving her long and varied career in community and technical college administration spanning the field on three levels — campus, state system, and large multi-campus service with the Dallas County CCD. Featured in the afternoon forum, she shared insights from her intense and continuing study of “Leadership,” soon to go to press as her fourth book. All in all, it was a day in which our understanding of public service was enriched as much or more than the audience’s.

Such is the reward of a visit to Garden City. GCCC President Herb Swender, in vigorous collaboration with his board of trustees, orchestrates a partnership between community and college that radiates their very name. Their Garden is a veritable rural Camelot. It’s a prime example of the benefits both economic and cultural that a quality community college spreads in rural America. As the heart of rural America, Kansas has 19 community colleges, roughly one for every five counties, putting college access at less than an hour’s drive for every Kansan. Kansas also showcases the upward mobility that Pell Grants bring to rural America. Rural America benefits from Pell as much as the urban centers.

Pell is by far the greatest benefit to students and colleges ever enacted by Congress. Again, it has outrun five GI Bills combined in putting Americans in college, looking as promising for the future as the past. Roughly half of the students earning college credit in the Kansas community colleges are supported by Pell. It’s been 54% at GCCC in the last academic year. It’s higher in the farm States with shorter growing seasons. At Maine’s six rural community colleges, for example, Pell supports 60% or more of the enrollment. At least half the nation’s community colleges serve rural communities and counties, some 600 in all. Half or more of that number could fold if Pell were to end. Pell is looking more and more like another third rail: touch at your own risk. It’s doing as much as Social Security to feed social stability — even as it fills democracy’s promise of equality through opportunity. Rural voters owe it to themselves to make their Members of Congress understand very plainly that Pell has “third rail” importance to their future in the lives of their children. Like Social Security checks, Pell dollars go largely to necessities. They go first to tuition at most colleges. What’s left becomes credit at the bookstore, or lunch and car money in the student’s pocket. They go farther at community colleges than anywhere else in higher education.

For the disadvantaged aspiring to achieve, their dreams of success, growing by equality through opportunity, are spelled P-E-L-L. So, the nation is living in the third revolution in education, rooted in the progressive combination of community college and Pell Grant. Yes, it’s the linchpin of the American Dream. How important is it to rural America? As big as rural America wants it to be. Camelot is possible for every rural community or county that has a community college. It will happen as a partnership, wherever the president and board share the vision and the determination to make it happen.

Frank Mensel — August 2015