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Community Colleges and Economic Self-Determination

By Rob Jenkins

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about how community colleges are often perceived by the news media and by politicians as simply “engines for ‘work-force development’”—in other words, job-training centers.

The problem, I said, is that people tend to overlook the other important role of community colleges, which is providing a liberal-arts education for nearly half of America’s college graduates.

If the vision of two-year colleges as primarily job-training centers is the one that ultimately wins out, I believe that could do irreparable harm not only to our educational system but also to the egalitarian foundations of our democratic society. I’ve often said that one of the best things about community colleges is the opportunity they provide for students to figure out what they want to do in life. In that sense, community colleges are a uniquely American invention.

Other industrialized nations typically employ some sort of “track” system, by which students are funneled early on—perhaps as early as middle school—into either a technical track or a university track, based on test scores and other factors. In other words, the system decides for them, while they’re still children, whether they’re going to be leaders or relegated to worker-bee status.

Not so in the United States. Here students get to decide for themselves whether they want to go to college, go to technical school, or not pursue any postsecondary education at all. They get to decide what profession or vocation they wish to follow, and (theoretically, at least) they can go as far in that chosen field as their abilities and hard work will take them.

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