How to Look at Community Colleges

How to Look at Community Colleges

A legislator's response to those who say these schools are taking too long to educate students.

Recently, criticism has been lodged against community colleges for taking longer than three years to graduate some of their students. In neighboring Massachusetts, for example, where only 16.4 percent of community college students graduate within three years, shock waves have found their way into The Boston Globe, where misguided critics alleged that community colleges are taking too long to do their job.

Nothing could be farther off the mark. Using a three-year mark to judge the effectiveness of a community college is almost laughable. Using it to measure their value to society does a disservice to these vital schools and the work they are doing.

In the past few years, stiff competition from abroad has affected jobs across America, including in my state of Connecticut. Some jobs leave, some stay, and some require more training. But one thing remains constant: Community colleges are providing our workforce with the training needed for the jobs that remain-at a price workers can afford.

Displaced or underemployed workers must obtain the education and training they need to find new jobs in this "flattened world." Employers and employees need community colleges more than ever. It is a necessity if we are to remain competitive.

These schools give employees survival skills. Housatonic Community College, in my home city of Bridgeport, Conn., has many students trying to balance full-time work with raising a family and taking courses to advance in or train for a career.

Using a three-year graduation mark to judge the effectiveness of a community college is almost laughable.

For many-especially family breadwinners who can only find the time for a course or two each semester-it doesn't mean going full time for a two-year degree. For some, it means taking a course or two to sharpen their skills or develop new ones. For others, it means pursuing a one-year certificate to train for a new career.

Three-year graduation rates don't reflect the crucial impact community colleges have on the lives of their students, the companies that employ them, or our nation.

Consider other "out-of-the-classroom" ways that community colleges help businesses.

During Janis Hadley's 10 years as president of HCC, the college has become a valuable asset and true partner to business.

It played a key role in creating the Bridgeport Economic Resource Center, the agency charged with attracting and retaining business. HCC helped bring some $2 million in grants to the business community, some of which were used for the initial operations of METAL, a consortium of metal manufacturers who are pooling their resources to help manufacturers compete in our world economy.

Two years ago, the college went one step further. With the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce, HCC created the Housatonic Research Institute to provide free high-quality, low-cost strategic planning data to the business community and other interested constituencies. Its Connecticut Business Strategic Planner helps local businesses assess the market and make better decisions. All are significant contributions to the region and our country. None are reflected in the three-year graduation rate.

Housatonic ranks among the nation's most effective in giving people a low-cost opportunity to better their lives. When it comes to operating cost-effectively, HCC stands out as a profit center for the state, bringing in nearly $180 million annually to its service region. And the college distinguishes itself as a true partner on the cutting edge of helping the business community.

Each of these is worth a long, loud round of applause. And none are reflected in the three-year graduation rate!

Community colleges provide the lifelong learning that our state and our nation need now more than ever. For this reason, when it comes to training for a new career, the advice I give constituents is, "Go to a community college. Go to Housatonic and study at your own pace. That's why we have community colleges!"

Bill Finch is a Connecticut state senator. He can be reached at finch@senatedems.ct.gov.


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