If community colleges are turned into job training centers, it could “do irreparable harm not only to our educational system but also to the egalitarian foundations of our democratic society,” writes Rob Jenkins, a Georgia Perimeter College English professor, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Other industrialized nations track students in middle or high school into a technical or university track, deciding who will be leaders and who will be worker bees. In the U.S., students decide for themselves. “Practically anyone who wants to go to college can do so” at a community college, even with low test scores and grades or limited finances, he writes.
In my 26 years as a community-college professor, I’ve had many students who were in my classes only because their parents told them they needed to go to college. They really had no interest in college, or at least in traditional college, but that sounded better to them than the alternatives, such as moving out of the house and getting a full-time job.
Then one day they were wandering across the campus and noticed that the college offered a program in automotive repair. Or cosmetology. Or construction management. They said to themselves, “Wow, I didn’t know you could study that in college. I’ve always been kind of interested in _________________.” Next thing they knew, those students had figured out what they wanted to do. They suddenly had a direction in life.
Conversely, I have had students—usually older, nontraditional students—who were in college solely to acquire a specific credential, in order to get a particular job or to upgrade their employment. Many times they were taking my English class only because it was required for their program, and they weren’t happy about it. They were probably just as unhappy about having to take history and psychology and biology.
But then a funny thing happened: They discovered that they liked writing. Or history. Or psychology. Or biology. Or all of the above. They learned that they actually enjoyed learning. I’ve had students in this category who went on to earn Ph.D.’s and become professors themselves.
No other sector of higher education gives low-income and working-class people “a legitimate shot at upward mobility,” Jenkins concludes.