By Susan A. Davis
When discussing higher education, many people may think of the traditional four-year university. But in reality, our community colleges have come to satisfy a critical need in higher education as a bridge to further education and the first step toward lucrative careers. They are a vital component of higher education that rightly deserve additional attention.
As the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, I will be looking at ways to expand the impact of community colleges. This will be an especially important conversation as we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) this Congress.
The rising costs of tuition and a lack of investment from all levels of government have put high-quality post-secondary education increasingly out of reach for millions of Americans. In this high-cost environment, community colleges often bridge the gap for millions of middle class families who cannot afford to pay for four-year universities.
Additionally, community colleges have historically shown a tremendous ability to reach out and support first-generation college students and others for whom achieving a post-secondary education may be more difficult. I strongly believe that it is the job of Congress to match that success by finally providing resources for this important work.
That’s where the HEA reauthorization comes in. We can improve our higher education system, and increase access to all forms of higher education if we lift up community colleges and address the affordability of four-year universities.
The HEA was last renewed in 2008 and has been working under short-term extensions. In a rapidly changing world and an ever-changing economy, we need to ensure the HEA is meeting the needs of our students.
Two out of 3 jobs in the modern-day economy are filled by individuals with a post-secondary education. Over their lifetimes, bachelor’s degree holders make approximately $1 million more than high school graduates, and associate degree holders make $400,000 more than high school graduates.
We must do everything possible to make higher education pathways affordable to everyone — not just those at the top or those who can afford to go to traditional four-year private institutions.
The chance to reauthorize HEA does not happen every year — which is why we cannot waste this moment by passing a bill that changes higher education only at the margins.
House Democrats have articulated a vision of proposing immediate investments in students to make higher education more affordable today.
And there is no great mystery on how to do that. We simply need to expand Pell grants and we need to make them more flexible.
A comprehensive HEA reauthorization cannot stop at merely expanding federal resources. We also need to make sure we address accountability, especially given that the Department of Education is weakening many standards meant to protect our students. The Department of Education’s decision to roll back consumer protections for borrowers that date from the 1990s makes it more likely that students will be on the hook should they fall victim to one of many fraudulent institutions. Congress has a duty to protect taxpayers and students from low-quality schools by restricting those schools’ access to federal student aid.
We must also look at the work community colleges have done outside of the traditional conception of higher education. The partnerships many of our institutions have made with local communities are quite amazing and unique.
There are few places better at bringing together students, local businesses, and instructors than American community colleges. They are currently on the front lines of changing the future of work. We must adapt our education model to this new reality.
One critical investment that community colleges have made is expanding apprenticeships and partnering with local businesses to ensure their workforce needs are met. While the progress has been extraordinary so far, we must go beyond where we are. We need to start thinking beyond the traditional trades and expand career education into areas not traditionally associated with apprenticeships such as banking, health care, cybersecurity, and other expanding career fields.
Community colleges not only serve a critical role in making a traditional post-secondary education a reality, but they can help students who may not be interested in a four-year degree find success in high-quality, high-paying careers. We must acknowledge the important role community colleges play in preparing students for further study, and we must expand upon the other important services and pathways to higher education that they provide.
We want to make sure community colleges help all sorts of students, from adult learners to individuals who have no interest in attending a university, acquire the skills they need to succeed in today’s modern economy.
But it’s also much more than that. It’s about creating an environment that nurtures people so they can achieve success, care for their families, and make a difference in their communities.
—Congresswoman Davis represents central San Diego, including the communities of Old Town, Kensington, Mission Hills, University Heights, Hillcrest Bankers Hill, North Park, South Park, Talmadge, Normal Heights, as well as La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and parts of El Cajon and Chula Vista.