In 2011, four community college system chancellors began discussing how community colleges help build a stronger, more competitive workforce and, therefore, a strong middle class. “What we were seeing was increased recognition of the role of community colleges in terms of solving a number of problems being faced by individuals, employers, and states, but along with that recognition were increased expectations,” says Joe D. May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “Regulations coming out of Washington, but elsewhere too, didn’t fully grasp the changes occurring in the workplace and the economy, and the role that community colleges play. Often well intentioned, these regulations have unintended consequences,” notes May, adding that the regulations tend to work against, rather than in support of, getting an education and then a good middle-class job.
May is leading the organization formed in response to these challenges. Called Rebuilding America’s Middle Class (RAMC), the group of community college leaders aims to speak with a unified, proactive voice at the national, state, and local levels. Specifically, RAMC is working to:
- Provide a strong national voice for community colleges by advocating for partnerships and strategies that improve both access and student success.
- Tell the story of America’s community colleges by creating and executing a communications campaign to demonstrate the role community colleges play in providing their students with an onramp to the middle class and in spurring economic development in local communities.
- Educate policy makers to develop and implement sound laws, rules, and regulations that support America’s community colleges in their effort to build a strong middle class.
RAMC differs from other community college organizations, May says, in its refined focus on legislation. “We don’t get into other sector-based issues. ... We’re working collaboratively not only with the American Council of Community Colleges, but any community college advocacy group that already exists.”
An initial meeting, held this spring with the support of the Lumina Foundation, ACT, and Pearson, had representation from about 50 colleges from throughout the country. The hope, May says, is to have about 200 members by the end of the year. “There’s a great deal of interest as people realize that more and more of what happens in Washington directly impacts our ability to serve students and meet their needs.”
The organization sends a weekly update to members about what’s happening in Congress.
In July, May testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, on the topic “Keeping College Within Reach: Exploring State Efforts to Curb Costs.” He noted the importance of associate’s degrees and certificate programs.
Community colleges are invited to become Charter or Sustaining members of Rebuilding America’s Middle Class to help ensure these institutions are at the center of efforts to build a stronger, more competitive workforce. Charter membership dues are $50,000 per year and include a seat on the board. Sustaining membership dues, ranging from $500 to $50,000 annually, are based on institutional core expenditures. Affiliated membership is open to organizations that are not institutions for an annual fee of $25,000. For more information, visit http://supportramc.org or email RAMC@hcmstrategists.com.
“Increasingly, some of these short-term certificates, which are ultimately stackable, get you in the door but may not get you the long-term career you’d like,” he explains. There’s also a “realization that people need to keep coming back for education throughout the course of their careers to stay current.”
Still, there remains an image problem. “While community colleges now enroll almost half of all undergraduates in the United States, the recognition of their role is still often misunderstood by many in our society,” he says. “People don’t understand that by attending a two-year college you can earn the credentials [to get a good job].”
As for his higher education counterparts, he believes that “the days of being able to simply ignore what happens in Washington at the policy level are over.”