Kent H. Hughes, the director of the Program on Science, Technology, America and the Global Economy at the Washington, D.C. think tank The Woodrow Wilson Center, sees the direction community colleges take in the 21st century as indicative of where our nation is headed. He notes that although four-year research institutions are the envy of the world, community colleges offer the most opportunities for many American students, particularly those who are poor, under-prepared or first generation college students. Hughes describes community colleges as famously flexible and “uniquely situated to help build a new, more comprehensive learning system” in the United States.

At one time many community colleges were, literally, extensions of high schools. The oldest community college in the nation, Joliet Junior College, actually had its campus on site of what became Joliet Central High School. Hughes sees this extension, which has been eschewed as an image-breaker for institutions of higher learning, as a new opportunity to aid American education. To compete in today’s global economy, students need more, not less education. In some parts of the country, calls for 14 years of preparation have been gaining some popularity.

Hughes suggests that community colleges and high schools can work hand-in-glove to provide students with the right skills and knowledge to be successful in a changing economy. In fact, Hughes recommends that community colleges and high schools take another look at the German approach to education, where no student is left without career options. The German approach, which was never embraced by Americans who feared students would be pigeon-holed into trades or jobs that they did not want, not only provided students with a marketable skill but also the education to run a business. Hughes believes that community colleges in the United States could take the best parts of the German approach and combine them with American values to give students a good foundation on which to build their futures.

Hughes worries that the cost of education is out-of-reach for many students today. He calls the current cohort of college-age students the YO-YO generation—“You’re On Your Own.” Community colleges, because of their low cost and sole focus on instruction, offer hope and help for students who do not have the wherewithal to access traditional four-year schools. Helping students receive access education is a vital role of community colleges. But equally important, Hughes notes, is the importance of educating as many young people as possible to ensure the vitality of the nation in the future. Hughes urges community colleges to leverage graduates to reap broader benefits than the laudable goal of achieving a college degree or certificate. He believes these alumni represent a formidable economic force that can—and should—be harnessed. For example, community college alumni may help mitigate risk in bank loans and health care coverage.

These are bold suggestions for community college leaders. But Hughes believes that without innovation and creativity, the real impact of the community college will fall short of what the future demands. Hughes concludes that, “Above all, this best-kept secret of American education merits our thanks, greater national recognition and strong financial and political support.” IBI