Community college agenda: The endgame is a fair chance society

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The American Association of Community College’s “Community College Agenda for the Trump Administration” is a blueprint for implementation of critical national higher education policy priorities, touching on needs regarding financial support, infrastructure investment and regulatory issues from a national policy perspective. (Download the full document here.)

In the recently released document, the AACC presents a vision of “how the federal government can help community colleges fulfill their mission of building a stronger America.” This vision resonates within Connecticut as well. I’d like to personalize that perspective to help underscore how investment in Connecticut’s community colleges helps secure the future of our state.

At Manchester Community College, alumni like Stephen Phillips ’16 illustrate the imperative of higher education and the critical importance of our colleges to provide individuals with economic opportunities. Stephen left what he considered to be a dead-end career after 16 years and enrolled in MCC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program. He describes his move at 57 years old as “scary,” but he landed an OTA position following our program’s coursework and simultaneous supervised clinical experience. Today, he couldn’t be happier and he is excited about a new-found future.

Another recent student, Than Soe Aye – who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Myanmar – is now employed full-time at Pratt & Whitney. Than served an apprenticeship there as part of the college’s short-term precision manufacturing program. He earned six credits and a certificate through this program, and now that he’s a permanent employee, he is eligible to take advantage of the company’s employee scholarship program to complete his college education while earning a living at the same time.

The faces, ages and economic background of students attending the country’s more than 1,100 community colleges has changed, and we are refining our strategies to respond to the needs of students in new demographics. At MCC we have seen our population increase in racial and ethnic diversity from 28 percent diverse in 2008 to nearly 50 percent.

We hear stories over and over again from students about how their experiences have literally transformed their lives. Education helps them be better prepared to steer their own futures, which enhances their sense of personal dignity. Moreover, we know that these educated citizens contribute to making our state and region better places to live and work as a result of their renewed confidence and contributions.

Margie Frost earned her GED in her late 30s and returned to school to pursue a college degree in criminal justice – having not been in a classroom since the 10th grade. She has become active as president of the campus chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society.

Another student, Huma Naeem, emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan with the goal of becoming a radiologist. She took English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at MCC and counts her mastery of the language along with obtaining her green card among her greatest accomplishments. A mother of two young children, she is now enrolled in our Radiation Therapy program, is a scholarship recipient, and holds a 4.0 GPA and a work-study job.

Students and alumni credit the support they received from MCC staff, faculty and fellow students. Stephen found a purpose through occupational therapy. Than benefitted from the new kind of apprenticeships that the college designs with local business partners to give them skilled employees from day one. Margie entered MCC through our Adults in Transition program, which provides support services aimed at making it easier to get started by guiding non-traditional students through the college process. Huma took advantage of the four levels of ESL courses offered to non-English speakers to improve language proficiency.

The tools and knowledge our students gain help them develop new skills and set new career goals for themselves – but that’s not all. In addition to teaching specific job related skills, MCC’s general education requirements provide a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences that build problem solving, critical and innovative thinking, as well as communication skills. The liberal arts prepare students to succeed on a greater scale, as better neighbors and contributing citizens.

As a community college leader, I have grave concerns regarding the consequences of potentially losing the support of key federal programs that augment what we are able to provide with tuition and fees and state support. An example is our student support services which, bolstered by a recent $1.1 million federal TRIO grant, give students the chance to work with mentors and counselors, and to secure internships so that they get real, hands-on guidance and experience to succeed long term.

MCC offers all of this at a reasonable cost because we have been able to fill in gaps with private donations and the federal support provided by the TRIO, and Pell and Perkins grants that support financial aid to students. We make it a priority to work with all of our students to put together financial aid packages based on grants and scholarships – not loans – to the point where, along with the MCC Foundation and retirees, our employees donate to an emergency fund that helps defray student expenses. But grants are a stopgap measure.

We’ve also just introduced, through the support of a generous bequest, a program of retention grants for promising students who, for want of a semester’s worth of fees or books, would otherwise interrupt their education. In keeping with the community college mission, we help ensure students do not face no-win choices as they complete a well-rounded education.

In fact, if it were not for community college, Stephen, Than, Margie, Huma and countless others would have very different, less than desirable futures – which would inevitably have a negative impact on Connecticut’s future.  MCC’s rigorous approach and expectations, with strong support, acclimates people to the holistic college experience, giving them the confidence to be successful overall.

As the AACC’s agenda makes clear, community colleges in the U.S. serve a high proportion of non-traditional and first-generation students, veterans and displaced workers. While the proportion of minority students compared with white students has increased over the past decade, Manchester Community College is a microcosm of all community colleges in the diverse groups we educate. We mirror the changing demographics across our country. There are also greater educational opportunities for veterans today, and we now have a significant veteran population and services to support them.

Economic inequality hits these populations hardest. As a state, Connecticut is at an economic tipping point. Without affordable, accessible education, many people would be cut off from opportunities to contribute to the state’s growth and to preserve their own sense of basic human dignity. Community college is where people go for those opportunities.

Through the support of public and private funding, as well as business partners, we continue to provide these opportunities. Now, it’s up to college leaders and policy makers to work together to create sustainable solutions that meet the goals of having an educated population that drives the future of Connecticut.

If education is a basic tenet of human rights for a democratic society, as was the foundation of community colleges as established by the Truman Report, if as a society we truly believe in a strong middle class and that everyone has a right to a fair chance at dignity, then the investment in community college is an economic imperative not just for the Trump administration as the AACC lays out, but for Connecticut policy as well.

 Gena Glickman, Ph.D., is president of Manchester Community College.

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