Within six years, two-thirds of all American jobs will require a postsecondary degree or certificate. The bad news? Less than one in three Americans currently has a bachelor’s degree. The good news? Community colleges can fill much of this gaping hole in educational attainment—and they plan to. The American Association of Community Colleges, which last month recommended an overhaul of the community college system to better serve and re-build our nation’s middle class, aims to educate an additional 5 million more Americans by 2020. Community colleges, by design, are a gateway to the middle class. They prepare students for careers in information technology, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing. They offer low-cost, flexible degree and certificate programs that cater to working adults, who balance families and jobs, as well as low-income students, who can’t financially attend a flagship university.
Community colleges are particularly helpful to communities that struggle with unemployment, or worse, suffer from a largely unskilled workforce that can’t fill hundreds of open jobs already available. They can tailor educational programs to the needs of local employers, so students receive the technical training they need to do the work that employers want. So it is alarming when communities, like Erie County, Pa., which are in desperate need of revitalizing their local economies, balk at an opportunity to open a community college to serve and strengthen their dwindling middle class.
Erie, which sits on the Great Lake of the same name in northwestern Pennsylvania, used to be a manufacturing town, like many cities across the United States. These days, it struggles with unemployment, poverty, and brain drain, even though some 7,500 jobs sit open and unfilled across the county. A few years ago, leaders from the city, businesses, social services, and philanthropy got together and tried to establish a community college to alleviate some of these social ills. What followed was a two-year battle against outdated ideas about higher education and public reluctance to make short-term investments for longer term economic gain. It’s a story that could easily have been set in any city across the country.
This glimpse inside Erie’s woes should be a sobering reminder that workforce demands have changed substantially in the last two decades. Businesses won’t wait for city leaders to catch up; they’ll move to more prosperous, productive areas where they can find the skilled workers they need. And economies like Erie’s will deteriorate.