How Can Community Colleges Change the Way we Think About Talent?

by Joseph Miller, Esq

Believe it or not, some high school graduates not bound for four-year colleges still want to pursue higher education.  But our system of higher education has other plans in mind for these students.  In the United States, if you don’t attend a four-year college immediately after high school, you essentially become red meat for employers seeking low-wage workers (if you’re fortunate enough to find a job at all) or for-profit colleges whose duty is to the bottom line, whether or not they meet the unique needs of each student.   In too many cases, community colleges have become either a choice of last resort or a choice that has lost so much credibility that many students no longer consider it an option.  Why attend community college for two years, if you can “get the training you need for a job with a future in as little a nine months,” as Everest College heralds on its website?

Raising the standards of community colleges would raise standards across-the-board by forcing for-profits to compete by providing student-centered learning, providing four-year colleges with a more diverse pool of quality applicants seeking additional education beyond the Associates degree, and raising the standards of the American workforce.  In a nation in which people of color are expected to make up more than 50% of the population by 2050, it is critically important to reform higher education in a way that teaches students of varying learning styles the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills they will need to compete in a global economy.

This will require us to shift the way we think about the potential of workers beyond the age of seventeen. By some accounts, age eighty is the new sixty-five for retirement.  Paradoxically, American workers internalize the message that their abilities are written in stone and what they have accomplished from age 0 to 17 will irreversibly determine the next 63 years of their working lives.  This myth provides justification to plutocrats, but is holding the rest of the country back.  It also flies in the face of a growing body of research suggesting that IQs are not fixed at birth, but can be improved with education.

On December 16, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies convened a roundtable discussion among education policy stakeholders for a results-driven dialogue to improve community colleges’ ability to educate the next generation of American innovators.  In the keynote, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urged participants to empathize with individuals who have the potential to excel but not the opportunities. Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, stressed President Obama’s goal to move America from the middle to the top of the pack of the world’s most innovative countries.   To do this, the White House has partnered with Change the Equation, the National Academy Foundation, and Skills for America’s Future to improve high schools and community colleges and strengthen ties between community colleges and employers.  The White House has also produced an inventory of STEM programs nationwide through the post-doctoral level.  According to Kalil, over $1 billion of federal investments in STEM are allocated to broaden participation by underrepresented groups.  Kalil acknowledged the critical importance of improving STEM education in early grades, but also said that retaining STEM students by reducing class sizes is important to keep students interested and engaged in STEM. A book entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” summarizes other efforts to improve American competitiveness.

The nation’s challenge to improve STEM education is multifaceted and will not be overcome without significant effort from a variety of stakeholders.  Living conditions play a major role in academic achievement. Thus, any approach to reducing achievement gaps must address the circumstances of poverty and the circumstances of working while attending school.  Several roundtable participants raised other important issues that must not be overlooked.  Ajenai Clemmons, Policy Director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a roundtable participant, urged policy makers to include local elected officials in the discussion. Quentin Lawson, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, another roundtable participant, expressed the need to develop better ways to develop STEM instructors, especially STEM instructors from underrepresented backgrounds.  Linda Rosen of Change the Equation raised the issue that many elementary school teachers think of themselves as generalists, rather than science and mathematics teachers.  John Horrigan, Vice President of Policy Research at TechNet, said that data needs to be made available to the research community in order to understand where the “outliers” are that have been successful and develop initiatives to apply what works.

These issues only skim the surface of the many problems that need to be addressed before we accomplish true STEM reform.  It is only through a persistent and interdisciplinary effort that it will be achieved.  Accordingly, the Joint Center announced the formation of a task force to make specific recommendations to improve STEM education.  This effort must be results-oriented rather than simply another Washington discussion in which people drink coffee, eat cookies and go home.  The future of American innovation depends on creating a culture of lifelong learning that makes fewer reductionist assumptions about students’ intrinsic abilities.

Joseph Miller, Esq. is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Director of the Media and Technology Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC.  More information on Joseph Miller and his work can be found at the Joint Center website.

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