Community colleges across the country celebrated last month when the third installment of President Obama’s Community College and Career Training initiative released $474.5 million to 183 schools around the nation.

This initiative overwhelmingly focuses on job training, which strives “to expand demand-driven skills training and strengthen employer partnerships.”

According to the Department of Labor’s news release:

“The initiative complements President Obama's broader goals of ensuring that every American has at least one year of postsecondary education, and that the U.S. has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.”

The main point of the initiative is to develop skills that lead to good jobs. Don’t get me wrong: job training is a good thing. The more rapidly our economy changes, the more assistance workers need to transition into new jobs from obsolete positions. This is an important way to maintain economic strength and lower unemployment.

The Many Roles of Community Colleges

Community colleges must first serve two primary functions; job training and career certification is only one of those. The other part of the community college mission is to provide students with the education they need to go on to a four-year degree program.

Unfortunately, community colleges are not doing such a great job helping students achieve that four-year degree. The real stats are staggering:

“While 81.4 percent of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree, only 11.6 percent of them do so within six years.”

I’ve seen this firsthand. The causes are easily identifiable but cannot be as easily solved with job training programs. As far back as 2005, the Bridge Project at Stanford University discovered students often come ill-prepared to community colleges, with low reading and mathematics abilities hindering their progress at both community colleges and when transferring to more rigorous programs.

The various skill levels in community colleges can often be traced to each student’s background. Where I teach, for example, students from the wealthier suburbs are, on the whole, much more prepared for college than students from poor inner city districts with smaller education budgets, deteriorating facilities and outdated or absent technologies.

The community college grant initiative may not do much to address this root problem because the grant concerns only the relationship between colleges and workforce partners—not between colleges and the K-12 system, where basic student skills are taught.

If some of the grant money could be spent on fostering programs to help students become more prepared for college, especially at schools with large at-risk populations, students would be better equipped to handle the rigor of the courses and go on to four-year programs.

Other Factors at Play

My wish for the community college funding initiative is that it would focus as much attention on the essential liberal arts foundations as it does on job training. Reading and mathematical literacy, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills are essential to the professional success of all workers.

Let’s make sure the students who benefit from this program can read and write well before they graduate, so they may be better able to weather future economic shifts or job scarcity.

I’ve often worried about my students who proudly leave school with a certificate in a specific field, but suffer from poor written and oral communication skills, which become clear in job applications and interviews. This imbalance will not help students on their career paths.

There’s no question community colleges desperately need more financial support, but they need other types of support as well. The students in my community college courses are just as deserving as students at four-year, research-intensive universities. This investment in community colleges is an investment in their futures, and by extension, the future of our economy.

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