It is a sad reality that in America the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past 50 years. This growing wealth gap has come at the expense of the middle class, once a defining feature of the American dream, now a sort of economic vanishing point on a horizon of distress and turmoil.
Jobs require education. The health and stability of the American economy depends on the innovation of its public education system and, in particular, the innovation of its community colleges.
During historic periods of growth and industrialization, the American public education system provided a common ground. In particular, two-year community college degrees have created uniquely American pathways to innovation, specialization, and worker mobility, an accessible bridge from high school to employment, and transfer to four-tier institutions. year. Both pathways—technical education for employment and higher education transfer—remain essential to increasing the incomes of individuals and families throughout life, thereby creating a strong middle class.
With new technologies changing the face of almost every industrial sector, there is now an urgent demand for higher-level skills associated with a bachelor’s degree. However, traditional models of delivering a four-year education present financial and logistical barriers to large-scale expansion. The rising cost of earning a four-year degree can be a deterrent, even when the first two years can be completed at an affordable community college. Travel and housing costs can overwhelm low-income families and students living in peri-urban and rural areas where the nearest university may be hundreds of miles away. The strongly local character of community colleges can be difficult to recreate in universities that serve larger regional or even national needs.
Community college bachelor’s degrees emerged as an innovative solution. In the 1980s, Parkersburg Community College in West Virginia became the first to establish a bachelor’s degree program at a community college (CCB). Today, about half of the states allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, and there are hundreds of CCBs offered nationwide. In 2019, an estimated 121 community colleges granted CCBs.
CCBs must now be leveraged to rebuild the middle class. We can enhance our nation’s skills in a rapidly changing technological environment by offering bachelor’s degree programs at the neighborhood community college.
Community colleges serve a large number of students of color and students from low-income families. Having easy access to an affordable, quality bachelor’s degree is essential to economic and social mobility, making the American Dream less elusive.
There are over 1,000 community colleges in the United States located in all parts of the country, including remote areas where housing is affordable for low-income communities. Where CCBs already exist, bachelor’s degrees open pathways to quality jobs in high-demand industries like healthcare, as well as emerging industries like clean energy. Community college baccalaureate programs, governed by locally elected boards and serving local communities, are rigorous, accredited, and offer career benefits similar to more expensive regional options. Employment data from the New America Foundation shows that graduates of CCB programs “enjoyed high employment rates similar to those of college graduates,” suggesting that CCBs expand opportunities for students who do not might not otherwise have pursued a bachelor’s degree. New America research also found that CCB graduates initially earned higher salaries than their college counterparts, although college graduates tended to close this gap over three years.
CCB degrees are nimble in meeting local workforce needs. An example is a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Automation at Bakersfield College, which is one of the colleges in the Kern Community College District, where I serve as Chancellor. College leadership and their local industry partners have recognized the growing trend of automation in key economic sectors in California’s Central Valley: agriculture, energy, aerospace, and logistics. The program trains students in the skills required for automation that occurs in industry in the region and has a 100% placement rate.
The use of CCBs is growing. According to New America researchers, “A growing number of states are introducing and expanding the power of community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees in applied fields.” In May 2021, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed into law Senate Bill 1453 and in October 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 927, in both cases authorizing the community colleges in their states to confer bachelor’s degrees. (California legislation allowed existing programs started on a pilot basis to become permanent and allowed the state’s community college system to offer up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year.)
Much progress has been made to provide better access to education for low-income students. While closing the wealth gap will remain a generational challenge requiring engagement from various other parts of government and society, CCBs are well positioned to play an important role in academia. The expanded role of CCBs is an agile and scalable solution to market demand for four-year degrees, creating local availability combined with local demand and local governance.
More resources should be available to expand CCB programs. CCBs should be widely recognized as a vital tool for the growing economic and social mobility of disinvested communities and for the vitality of the American middle class.
This is a change that cannot come too soon.