Can Community Colleges Change the Way We Think About Talent?

Can Community Colleges Change the Way We Think About Talent?


Believe it or not, some high school graduates not bound for four-year colleges still want to pursue higher education.  But, our system of higher education has other plans in mind for these students.  In the United States, if you don’t attend a four-year college immediately after high school, you essentially become red meat for employers seeking low-wage workers (if you’re fortunate enough to find a job at all) or for-profit colleges whose duty is to the bottom line, whether or not they meet the unique needs of each student.   In too many cases, community colleges have become either a choice of last resort or a choice that has lost so much credibility that many students no longer consider it an option.  Why attend community college for two years if you can “get the training you need for a job with a future in as little as nine months” as Everest College heralds on its website?

Raising the standards of community colleges would raise standards across-the-board by forcing for-profits to compete by providing student-centered learning, providing four-year colleges with a more diverse pool of quality applicants seeking additional education beyond the Associates degree, and raising the standards of the American workforce.  In a nation in which people of color are expected to make up more than 50% of the population by 2050, it is critically important to reform higher education in a way that teaches students of varying learning styles the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills they will need to compete in a global economy.

This will require us to shift the way we think about the potential of workers beyond the age of seventeen. By some accounts, age eighty is the new sixty-five for retirement.  Paradoxically, American workers internalize the message that their abilities are written in stone and what they have accomplished from age 0 to 17 will irreversibly determine the next 63 years of their working lives.  This myth provides justification to plutocrats, but it is holding the rest of the country back.  It also flies in the face of a growing body of research suggesting that IQs are not fixed at birth, but can be improved with education.

Recently, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies convened a roundtable discussion among education policy stakeholders for a results-driven dialogue to improve community colleges’ ability to educate the next generation of American innovators.  In the keynote, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urged participants to empathize with individuals who have the potential to excel but not the opportunities. Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, stressed President Obama’s goal to move America from the middle to the top of the pack of the world’s most innovative countries.   To do this, the White House has partnered with Change the Equation, the National Academy Foundation, and Skills for America’s Future to improve high schools and community colleges and strengthen ties between community colleges and employers.  The White House has also produced an inventory of STEM programs nationwide through the post-doctoral level.  According to Kalil, over $1 billion of federal investments in STEM are allocated to broaden participation by underrepresented groups.

Kalil acknowledged the critical importance of improving STEM education in early grades, but also said that retaining STEM students by reducing class sizes is important to keep students interested and engaged in STEM. A book entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” summarizes other efforts to improve American competitiveness.

The nation’s challenge to improve STEM education is multifaceted and will not be overcome without significant effort from a variety of stakeholders.  Living conditions play a major role in academic achievement. Thus, any approach to reducing achievement gaps must address the circumstances of poverty and the circumstances of working while attending school.

Several roundtable participants raised other important issues that must not be overlooked.  Ajenai Clemmons, Policy Director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a roundtable participant, urged policy makers to include local elected officials in the discussion. Quentin Lawson, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, another roundtable participant, expressed the need to develop better ways to develop STEM instructors, especially STEM instructors from underrepresented backgrounds.

Linda Rosen of Change the Equation raised the issue that many elementary school teachers think of themselves as generalists, rather than science and mathematics teachers.  John Horrigan, Vice President of Policy Research at TechNet said that data needs to be made available to the research community in order to understand where the “outliers” are that have been successful and develop initiatives to apply what works.

These issues only skim the surface of the many problems that need to be addressed before we accomplish true STEM reform.  It is only through a persistent and interdisciplinary effort that it will be achieved.  Accordingly, the Joint Center announced the formation of a task force to make specific recommendations to improve STEM education.  This effort must be results-oriented rather than simply another Washington discussion in which people drink coffee, eat cookies and go home.  The future of American innovation depends on creating a culture of lifelong learning that makes fewer pedantic assumptions about students’ intrinsic abilities.


  1. Why not simply turn community colleges into college preparatory institutions for public school districts? Set up a system where juniors and seniors in high school with an A-B average automatically go into their local community colleges before they go to a regular 4-year college. It's also a way to weed out the bad apples.

    Other than that, community colleges are just as much of a scam as for-profit schools.

  2. Community Colleges are not a scam. There are several Community Colleges around the country that provide a quality education for high school students. High school students have the opporunity to receive college credit and earn credit for completion of their high school diploma. Middle College, Early College and College Tech Prep are just a few of the avenues that Community Colleges enhance the quality of education provided to high school students.

    • That's what I'm saying. Why not standardize that? The only change though is credits toward a college degree while wrapping up high school. Focus on it as pre-college rather than high school completion. College prep.

      Community colleges are making underserved communities and immigrants pay them loads of money for 2-year degrees when they could just as easy go to an inexpensive 4-year public college at in-state prices and get a full degree. And some of the state schools, now, are offering online courses just like the equally scamming for-profit spots. There are also situations where the CC credits are non-transferrable; but, the CC's aren't being straight with the students about that small detail. By the time the students are ready to go to regular college, they find out the hard way that they don't have enough transferrable credits. That's messed up.

      Why is the government giving CCs all this money when most African American college students attend HBCUs? Why not give the money to HBCUs and let the HBCUs absorb some of the community colleges?

  3. Barry Nalebuff @ Yale once said that perhaps it is the most elite schools that should admit the students who are at risk–since those are the students who are most in need of the best education. Those schools certainly have the endowments to try it out.