The United States is largely segregated along education lines. Those who went to college usually know mostly other people who went to college, so they tend to think their experience is universal. Yet only three in ten Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.
Too often and for too many Americans, the word “college” means a four-year degree. The two-year degree gets a bad rap, and so do the community colleges that offer them.
That’s especially the case among politicians and parents who themselves hold bachelor’s degrees. In their minds, the four-year degree is the only route to a respectable and rewarding career.
It’s unfortunate that community colleges suffer from such a negative stereotype because so many people who end up going to a four-year college—and usually end up dropping out—would be much better off starting or even finishing at a two-year college.
For one, small first-year classes and low cost of community colleges allow students to explore careers before committing to a major at a four-year school, all while they earn valuable credits. Community colleges could also be an end in and of themselves. Only 17 percent of community-college students end up earning a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting school.
Secondly, in some cases, a two-year degree pays off more than if students went on to get a bachelor’s degree. In Virginia, for example, graduates with an associate’s degree in technical fields earn around $40,000 annually right out of school, more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.
Thirdly, community colleges are the gateway to the jobs of tomorrow that can’t be easily automated by robots. Most of those are “middle-skills jobs,” positions that demand more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. There are roughly 29 million of these jobs today. Some 11 million of them pay $50,000 or more a year, and 4 million pay $75,000 or more, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Despite the demand, a lot of these jobs in advanced manufacturing, health care, and information technology remain open because employers can’t find qualified candidates with enough education to fill them.
Take repairing a John Deere tractor. When Andy Winnett started repairing tractors for a John Deere dealer in 1977, all he needed was a toolbox. “Today your toolbox is a computer,” says Winnett, who now directs the John Deere technology program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington state. John Deere partners with several community colleges around the country to train technicians for its dealer network.
About 15 to 20 students come through the program each semester, which graduates students in two years. Because they are sponsored by a John Deere dealer, where the students work for half the program, most graduate with a job in hand. On average, a technician can start earning between $31,000 and $39,000 a year plus bonuses.
But as Winnett explained to me during a visit to Walla Walla earlier this year, students need “both brawn and brains” for these jobs today. “There’s at least $1.1 million in equipment here,” he said, as he looked at a lineup of the iconic green John Deere tractors outside his office. John Deere tractors have at least 24 computers embedded in them, mostly focused on emissions.
Most of the students who struggle or can’t make it in the program, he said, lack the critical math and comprehension skills to succeed. Jobs like the ones John Deere offer are still associated with students who performed poorly in high school. But the students I found at Walla Walla easily had the academic credentials to get into a four-year college, they’d just rather be here to work with their hands.
One of them, Oscar Tapia, a 19-year-old from Bakersfield, California, told me he had plans to go to a four-year college for an engineering degree, but changed his mind when he heard about the John Deere program at a diesel mechanic class while a junior in high school. After he graduates from Walla Walla, he plans to work for the dealer sponsoring him in Bakersfield. Still, he hasn’t ruled out getting that four-year engineering degree some day. “I want to show John Deere engineers how to design a better tractor,” he said.
Walla Walla is a great example of what a community college should be. It was forced to become an engine of economic development a decade ago after the local agricultural, food processing, and lumber industries started to decline and unemployed workers arrived at the college searching for retraining opportunities.
“We looked at what we were doing, and it wasn’t good enough for a community that needed our help,” said Steven L. VanAusdle, the college’s president. “That was a turning point for us, a wake-up call.”
Now, the college of some 10,000 students offers more than 100 degree and certificate programs, with about 60 percent of them in workforce and technical areas. One of the most competitive is a degree in enology and viticulture. When the college started it in 2000, the region had just 16 wineries. Today, there are nearly 200 local wineries, and they have spawned a vast hospitality sector in the region.
Perhaps attitudes nationwide are beginning to change about community colleges. Students and parents who have a wide variety of choices about where to go to college are increasingly landing at two-year schools. Some 25 percent of students from households earning $100,000 or more now attend community colleges, up from 12 percent just five years ago, according to an annual survey by Sallie Mae.
We always hear about the predictions that the U.S. will face a shortage of computer scientists and engineers in the decade ahead, but rarely do we hear that the nation will also face a shortage of nutritionists, welders, and nurse’s aides.
By 2020, it’s projected that nearly four in ten U.S. workers will have a only high-school diploma or less at a time when more jobs will require additional education. Middle schools and high schools have essentially given up on career and technical education, leaving behind a whole generation of students uninterested in pursuing a four-year academic track in college and community colleges as the stepchild of the nation’s higher-education system.
Selingo is a regular contributor to Grade Point. He is a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an author of books about higher education and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.