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In a November 9 news release from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the center projected that “If current trends continue, the percentage of Illinois’ workers with a college degree will decrease and the personal income of state residents will decline over the next 15 years.” The release also says if the state can’t improve education for Hispanics/Latinos and African-Americans, “the percentage of the state workforce with less than a high school diploma is projected to increase, while the percentage with an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree is expected to decline.”

This situation likely will reverse a two-decade trend in growth in personal income in Illinois. Only nine other states are expected to be as severely affected as Illinois. The center urges states like Illinois to create policies that result in better education for its future generations.

The report is particularly chilling for those of us in higher education and especially for those of us in community colleges. The report points to a major problem in recruiting students to higher educational institutions—many aren’t prepared well enough to have a successful experience. Traditional four-year institutions aren’t equipped, nor do they typically want, to accept students in need of remediation and extra attention. This job has, for the most part, been the exclusive domain of community colleges that operate under policies of open access. That means anyone who wants a college education can receive one. It also means it’s the community college that stands ready to work with students less than prepared for college work and help them develop the skills they need to succeed. And yet community colleges typically are viewed by the media, government, and the community as less significant institutions of higher learning. In some cases, community colleges simply are ignored as institutions of higher learning.

The most recent example occurred in an episode last season of the West Wing in which Josh Lyman, campaign director for Latino candidate Matt Santos, noted parents would be disappointed if all they could afford was community college for their children. Studies have demonstrated this bias against community colleges over the years.

Now there’s a report that tells us our state is going to be in big trouble soon because educational attainment is in danger. As personal income decreases, the state will become less attractive to those who would live and work here. But there’s a system in Illinois that’s well positioned and has a history of attracting minority students, as well as helping students reach their potential. That system is the community college system.

It’s true community colleges don’t have the high profile of Division I athletic teams or Nobel Prize winners as faculty. But one thing we do have is a dedication to helping students, regardless of past academic records, build skills to succeed in this world. And if you believe the predictions of this recent report, community colleges may be one of the best—if not the best—resource our state has to stop this decline. It’s time for people to start noticing. IBI

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