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Community Colleges in the United States got their day in the limelight last week at the White House Summit on Community Colleges. Unhappily, political support and kind words were all they got. They needed much more to help them perform their vital role.

Last spring, President Obama announced an unusually well-conceived plan to speed up the production of Community College graduates, who are now dropping out at rates exceeding sixty percent.  He said “at the start of my administration I set a goal for America: By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world…Today, I am announcing the most significant down payment yet on reaching this goal in the next ten years. It’s called the American Graduation Initiative. It will reform and strengthen community colleges from coast to coast so that they get the resources students and schools need – and the results workers and businesses demand.” Congress failed to support this down payment.

Some would say that the Tea Party movement and their lack of support for any new government initiative are to blame. Pundits call this knee-jerk opposition a “populist” philosophy. If that is so, why would a populist movement charge against the type of government spending, (which is offset by the end of a government subsidy of private sector college lenders) which is a model in populism? Why would tea partiers be the enemies of the least elitist of all initiatives in education? My hunch is because the tea partiers are not populists at all, they are just simply not part of the deal.

Results from a survey of a national sample of Tea Party members carried out by Quinnipiac University in March of this year reported that 72 percent of them have less than a college degree. These are people who have, in essence, been left educationally behind. Also, over 70 percent of them are white and middle aged or older and they believe that the end of their productive life will be less predictable than they ever thought it would be. Conversely, in majority, community college students are young and non-white. The tea partiers fail to comprehend the relationship between educating the Social Security and Medicare contributors of the future and their own membership in these American safety net programs, which in the Quinnipiac sample tops 60 percent.

What can community colleges do to respond to the challenge posed by President Obama, when their enrollment has been frozen by budget cuts and their programs are in danger from the expert attack of the Capitalized Universities?

For the time being, they think all they can do is polish their image and improve their self-concept (and of course, sign resolutions). The Summit produced a “Call to Action”  resolution signed by six national organizations which sounds more like a “Call for Redemption.”. Why have community colleges not engaged in what the resolution calls for (quality, low cost, employer-relevant programs)? Well some have, and they are fulfilling the dream.

Wal-mart offers its employees a 10% discount on tuition from the University of Phoenix. Even if the student is a part-time employee, they can pursue a bachelors, masters or doctorate online, which means (strategically) that if you want to enroll at a University of Phoenix program and you are unemployed; you should explore a part-time job at Wal-mart and save thousands of dollars on your education, get an income and a full set of health benefits as well.

Or look at United Parcel Service, who with the leadership of Jefferson Community and Technical College and the University of Louisville, created something called Metropolitan College. This is not a college at all, but a special program designed to starve off the threatened move of UPS from its hub in Louisville if it could not find new ways to recruit and retain qualified workers for its Next Day Air operation. They were experiencing a 100 percent turnover in 1998, but by 2007 the turnover rate was 20 percent and Metropolitan College was the reason. Notably, this was not accomplished without a significant investment by UPS ($6.5 million), and the public sector, ($2.7 million).

I think is that the most productive strategic direction community colleges can pursue consists of three ingredients, 1) honor your roots, 2) duplicate the efforts of those who have got it right and 3) get off your pretentious soapbox.  In a previous post I suggested three no-cost moves colleges should make to improve retention in their academic programs (“Move closer, Move Up or Move In”). Here I suggest a different move for a different goal for community colleges based on the three ingredients mentioned above which is a variant of the “Move In” strategy, which I call…”Move Back.”

The basis of my thesis is that the pursuit of prestige has created a “soapbox of pretensions” on which most community colleges faculty and administration stand. They would like to be known as academically rigorous four-year institutions, which most of them have tried to become; abandoning their original mission as occupational, industrial, practical educators of the non-academically-oriented. My advice is, “move back” quickly, to your original mission, before you lose your way altogether. The road you are on is occupied by better-equipped 4-year colleges and the road you are abandoning is being quickly occupied by your competitors.

It is significant to note that Germany, which occupies a much lower ranking than the U.S. in the percentage of students who have finished a college degree, is doing better economically than we are. The reason for this is that Germany has maintained its post-war emphasis on “occupational, industrial, practical education” for the non-academically-oriented. These apprenticeship programs are responsible for Germany’s preeminence in the world in the very necessary machine tools of manufacturing which has actually kept their exports higher than their imports. This emphasis has not been easy to maintain, there are those who say that Germany is limiting its poor and immigrants to the technical programs when they could easily qualify for academic programs.

We faced this political issue here in the sixties. Community Colleges in the U.S. were originally expanded by President Truman to provide occupational programs, in high school and community colleges, until we learned that they were primarily populated by minorities who were “tracked” into those programs and away from academic pursuits. “Tracking” became illegal and eliminated from high school and community college programs yet today community colleges and not four-year colleges are still the ones who teach minorities and meanwhile our industrial base moved to the Far East.

This abandonment of tracking resulted in an abandonment of vocational education as an alternative to the academic high school. This would have been great if in fact minorities would have benefited from this practice and we could have maintained our supremacy in any part of the manufacturing spectrum, but we did not. Today, 40 years after tracking was eliminated minorities are ten times more likely to be underemployed and three times more likely to be unemployed.

I call for Community Colleges to “Move Back” and for its faculty to move out of community colleges if they want to be professors and join us in 4-year colleges, making room for teachers of industrial and vocational practice, who keep their eye on the ball, –technical, industrial employment,– not just a step to higher, higher education.

I call for community college Presidents and Chancellors to seek the prestige of being essential to the economic success of their communities and the nation instead of becoming what we don’t need, more 4-year colleges.

I challenge government officials and trustees to link themselves with employers, instead of trying to become more academically prestigious institutions. In other words I call on them to move back. Back to the Future that is.