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'We can learn a lot from America's community colleges'


Gill Clipson, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, writes:

The American Dream is alive and well in America's nearly 1,200 community colleges.

Despite the familiar story of declining state funding and rising student loan debt, there is an optimistic air reinforced by the positive and energising words of the US vice-president, Joe Biden. 

Speaking at the 94th American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) conference in Washington DC earlier this month, which I was lucky enough to attend, Mr Biden placed community colleges at the heart of revitalising the economy.

The message put forth was a challenge to colleges, urging them to work closely with businesses to ensure that every American citizen has the skills that the economy and industry needs. This, in turn, will create a bigger middle class – helping themselves and their families. 

The challenges that community colleges in the US face are the same as ours: a low-skilled workforce resulting in skill shortages in new and developing industries, school leavers failing to achieve maths and English qualifications and the need for employer engagement. All of these challenges are being faced in a climate of ever-reducing government funding.

The difference, however, is in the solution. In his address to conference delegates, the vice-president made clear that the only ‘vehicle for change’ is community colleges.

They are the institutions serving more than 13 million students of all ages and from all walks of life, remaining at the heart of their communities and best placed to form links with employers and deliver the government’s agenda for higher level skills. 

Outside of the conference, I witnessed how community colleges are responding to these challenges when I visited Frederick Community College in Maryland and Harrisburg Community College’s Gettysburg Campus in neighbouring Pennsylvania.

These colleges have strong links with local employers who specialise in health and manufacturing respectively. The classroom environment and curriculum are built around the needs of industry, mirroring the workplace. The Chamber of Commerce in Gettysburg and a local employer reinforced that such initiatives have proven successful due to close partnership working and the college’s ability to address skills demands, provide flexibility and involve them in all aspects of the curriculum. Much of this is familiar to us.

What is perhaps less familiar is the fact, recently reported in the TES, that American community colleges are becoming great fundraisers, relying less on federal and state funding and attracting large donations from a range of organisations and particularly from successful college alumni who take pride from being able to ‘give something back’ to their community.

In a climate of ever-decreasing public funding, getting people to invest in the institution that allowed them to succeed and encouraging local businesses to be philanthropic is perhaps something we could learn from.

The upbeat and positive attitude of AACC and its members, alongside the genuine appreciation by the US government of the role of community colleges (and not just because the vice-president’s wife is a teacher at Northern Virginia Community College) is completely inspiring. 

How refreshing that the federal and state governments are getting behind their community colleges and trusting them to meet these immense challenges. 

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