Connecticut should invest more in community colleges, not less

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

Community colleges emerged in the early part of the 20th Century and flourished at exponential rates in the aftermath of World War II, Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and alongside the promise of the “Great Society.” During the late 1960’s and 1970s this movement saw community colleges opening at a rate of one college per week across the United States resulting in what are now over 1,450 institutions. These institutions are uniquely American — referred to as “Democracy’s Open Door.”

They provide Americans with a low-cost, efficient, accessible education that addresses poverty, inequality, and the redistribution of wealth. Community colleges are respected across the nation as the backbone of workforce development and a vital to the economy. Designed to reflect the local communities in which they reside, they all carry one common word in their name — community. They were never state-wide organizations—their focus is access! The convenience of the community-based institution allows students to often live, work and attend college in close proximity.

These organizations serve individuals from various socioeconomic classes with a broad array of educational goals —foundational general education, skill attainment, technical training, career retooling, welfare-to-work, and educating a workforce for some of the most important professions such as healthcare and precision technology.

Connecticut’s economy and its taxpayers have benefited from these no-frills institutions which provide education to working parents, women re-entering the workforce, those re-starting their education at every age, promising young people from every city and town, and a vast number of ethnic and racial minorities. Virtually nowhere else in the world can individuals chose to engage in such a democratizing and life-transforming force. In a world where CEO’s are earning 231 times the average worker, most community college presidents do not even earn four times the average community college worker. These Connecticut colleges have long been streamlined with a president, no vice presidents, and only three to four deans. These are lean, community engaged, business-responsive, student-oriented organizations.

Connecticut faces an ongoing budget crisis and somehow the community colleges have become the scapegoat. Why is the sector of public higher education that serves the highest number of minority students, the most economically disadvantaged and has a majority female student population under attack?

The mantra is: “Why does Connecticut need 12 community colleges?” The resounding retort should be: “Where is the meta-analysis to support mergers or closures of these successful organizations?” How do we know that 12 is too many? How do we know we don’t need more campuses to provide access through these efficient organizations?

A state that prides itself on subsidizing private industry to the tune of approximately $1 billion in taxpayer dollars in recent years should be ashamed of the fabricated crisis that demoralizes those who want to better themselves and contribute to our economy through hard work–and those that want to teach them.

A great deal of time, energy, and money has been wasted on “fixing something that was not broken.” Efficiency and excellence are not new to Connecticut’s community colleges. In 2009, Marc Herzog, the then-Chancellor of the Connecticut Community College System, was lauded by The Chronicle of Higher Education for creating a consolidated financial aid system that was more efficient and worked better for students —a model for the nation.

In 1997, the Community College Review ranked Connecticut number 1 out of all 50 U.S. states in terms of the number of African-American community college presidents. The Connecticut community colleges have also been led by a remarkable number of accomplished women as well as Latinos/Latinas –putting Connecticut on the national map of community college leadership.

This recently created “blame game” has been a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts —directing attention away from strengthening academic programs, increasing access, procuring grant funding, and marketing viable programs to eager students. Most reasonable people see the value in efficiency, sensible consolidation, and seamless academic transfer for students.

The spirit of Connecticut has always been one of ingenuity and pride –most of these colleges and their employees want to work together for the betterment of students and families. It is time that we all learn the history of community colleges and the proven capacity they have to transform lives, improve quality of life, and grow our state so it doesn’t have a deficit.

We do not have time to waste. Connecticut needs to invest in its community colleges in a way that holds our own communities together. Connecticut legislators, please do the right thing and fund community colleges the way you fund corporations. Please re-focus your attention on Connecticut’s students, taking pride in the community colleges in your own districts, and making all these colleges among the best in the United States.

Every day the Connecticut community colleges are forced to focus on the wrong things and receive “bad press” is yet another day that our students and our institutions are falling behind. If we don’t act now, we will be the laughing the stock of the nation; attracting new students, the best faculty, and new businesses to our state will be significantly impaired — and it will be a problem of our own making.

Brian G. Chapman, Ed.D., of Waterbury, holds a doctorate in community college leadership from the University of Texas at Austin.  


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