The Transylvania Times -

The Evolution Of Community Colleges


July 31, 2017

Forty years ago, community or junior colleges were often perceived of as places where those who were not smart enough to be accepted into four-year universities and colleges went to become trained for a vocation that required a minimal amount of skill and preparation.

That perception, if not wrong back then, certainly would be wrong now. The perception and role of community colleges have evolved over the years for multiple reasons.

The requirements to become employed in today’s quickly changing technological economy have changed dramatically. Students at community colleges are not just learning how to operate machines; they are learning to operate the machines that make machines. As the manufacturing process, from making automobiles to producing beer, has become more technological and precise, so has the instructional training for those skills. (Other professions, such as law, have not changed that much. The preparation and practice are much the same as they were 40 years ago.)

The cost and reward of a four-year degree has changed dramatically, thus making community colleges more financially attractive. The cost of obtaining a four-year education continues to increase, often at a pace far greater than inflation.

Tuition for a community college may be $2,600 a year while that for a four-year college may be $15,000 a year. Many students who plan to obtain a four-year are electing to attend community college for the first two years, thus saving themselves about $25,000.

Students also may prefer the smaller classes of 15-25 students in a general education course at a community college versus sitting in an auditorium of 500-800 students at a major university. This is especially true if all, or nearly all, of the community college courses will transfer to a four-year institution.

Due to the smaller class sizes and significant savings, it is no wonder that about half of the students attending Blue Ridge Community College are in the college transfer program and plan on obtaining a four-year degree.

The job market has changed as well. There are a few million technical jobs that go unfilled each year in the U.S. because there are not enough people trained to handle high-tech machines. Due to the shortage of trained personnel, as well as the escalating price of machines now used in manufacturing and distribution, the pay for many technical jobs has increased significantly.

While the job opportunities and pay in many technical fields have increased, the opposite has occurred in some of the fields that require four-year degrees. Many students with four-year degrees simply cannot find work in their chosen field. It is not uncommon to find college graduates working two or three jobs that require just a few hours or days of training.

As for pay, a starting machinist can earn as much or more than a starting teacher in North Carolina. Machinists receive a similar income while spending much less to obtain a two-year degree or certificate while the teachers spend much more to obtain a four-year degree. When it comes to an investment-to-reward ratio, sometimes commuity colleges offer a better deal.

The entire educational structure is shifting as well. Community colleges now offer classes to high school students. And many adults who have years of employment experience are attending community colleges because they are changing careers – either voluntarily or involuntarily – or they wish to stay abreast of technological changes.

Four-year colleges and universities still have their place, not only from a vocational perspective, but also from the perspective of developing the whole individual, of helping create an educated citizen with comprehensive knowledge and experiences.

But it is also important to recognize that community colleges are playing an increasing vital role both educationally and economically. And that role is becoming more prominent in the lives of many individuals and American society as a whole.


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