General Education, Transfer, and Workforce Preparation
“Most community colleges are short of funds, and they often get little attention—particularly from education writers like me,” admits Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. Community colleges are absolutely vital, both to the individual students for whom they offer the best path to higher education and to American society at large, which reaps huge economic rewards from the increased productivity of community college-educated workers. But to the extent that they receive media coverage at all, it is often to note perceived deficits, or as part of the ongoing debate about whether college should focus on job training or on broader learning. In the case of community colleges, this divide manifests in the question whether these institutions should focus on programs geared toward local employer needs or on general education programs that prepare students for transfer to four-year institutions.
But “the dichotomy of transfer degrees and workforce training is a false one—transfer IS workforce,” says Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed. “Most of the higher-paying jobs in this economy require a bachelor’s degree or higher. For many students, community colleges are the most reasonable on-ramp to those degrees.” Students completing transfer degrees and eventually four-year degrees will take a broad range of courses, including many in the arts and humanities, but these courses are not alternatives to workforce preparation—“they help develop the skills of analysis and communication that employers consistently complain they can’t find.”
In AAC&U’s 2013 survey of business leaders, for example, 80 percent of employers agreed that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, and 75 percent of employers said they thought colleges should put more emphasis on critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings. These findings have informed AAC&U’s work with institutions of all kinds to help students progress through their education and complete degrees, regardless of where they start. Making those pathways available for community college students offers them the best chance for success at work and life, Reed says. “Bachelor’s grads do just fine, as a group. People without access to higher education do far, far worse. Don’t shut down the most affordable and accessible entry point.”