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This month President Obama announced an ambitious proposal to fund two years of community college for eligible students.


Many lauded this announcement as a potential game changer. Others questioned the details, wondering how such a program, if implemented, might ultimately serve Oregonians.

This regional and national conversation is an important one. It places community colleges at the forefront of the educational reform debate, casting a spotlight on access, relevance and affordability. These are the defining issues in higher education today — and they go straight to the heart of the community college mission.

Ultimately, the president is right. To make radical improvements in educational equity, community colleges must play a pivotal role. In both rural and urban Oregon, community colleges are the ladder to good-paying jobs and the middle class; they provide unprecedented opportunity while helping to drive our region’s economic vitality. For these reasons, the success of two-year colleges should matter to every citizen.

Access

With its proposal, the White House makes a strong statement: To regain our global competitive edge, more Americans need access to a college education. Now and always, opportunity is the hallmark of community colleges. Unlike other post-secondary institutions, there is no gatekeeper at the point of entry. Within guided parameters, anyone who wishes to attend is welcome. We facilitate our students’ educational journeys no matter where their paths begin or where they lead.

Today, nearly half of the students at Oregon’s community colleges are enrolled in lower-division classes to build toward a baccalaureate degree. Other students are looking to fast-track their career readiness through basic skills development, job training or retraining. Still others are seeking lifelong learning and enrichment opportunities. Community colleges serve learners at every stage along this educational continuum with the widest array of classes and programs.

Relevance and quality

One of the greatest ongoing needs in our region relates to professional and career-technical education, including training in areas as diverse as automotive technology, electronic engineering, firefighting, machine manufacturing, nursing, veterinary science and welding. Obama’s proposal places similar emphasis on vocational training, and on ensuring that students become proficient in the critical skills and literacies valued by 21st-century employers.

Indeed, pertinent, high-quality vocational training has long been a weak link in the overall U.S. educational landscape, an arena where most economically robust countries place a much higher degree of emphasis. Oregon’s community colleges are leaders in this area, often partnering directly with business and industry to ensure highly relevant offerings.

Portland Community College, for instance, recently launched a new 20,000-square-foot Swan Island training facility with advanced equipment and technology in direct response to local needs. As a result of such partnerships, students can be trained and job-ready in less than two years.

Such courses are in demand, but they also are extremely expensive, costing far more to administer than tuition and student fees can reasonably cover. Without additional strategic public investment and new private contributions, these vital career-technical programs may not be able to meet the needs of a burgeoning economy.

Affordability

The most noteworthy aspect of the president’s proposal is its fundamental recognition that the nation’s community colleges deserve additional public support. This direction counters the decade-long disinvestment that has inevitably forced higher tuition and fees at all public colleges and universities. Such increases often place an untenable burden on students. Finding solutions to this student debt crisis is a task for all of us — our future economic health depends on it.

No matter what happens with the White House proposal, or with similar legislation currently under consideration in Salem, we must advocate for additional strategic investment in Oregon’s community colleges. Oregon currently ranks in the bottom five U.S. states in public support for higher education, and direct public support for two-year colleges across the state has dropped significantly on a per capita basis since 2007.

Thanks to the national conversation now taking place, we have all been reminded that community colleges return an extraordinary dividend on public investment. When we think about educational opportunity, job training, economic development and the critical discussion around affordable tuition, we should always think community colleges first.

Jeremy Brown is president of Portland Community College, Oregon’s largest post-secondary educational institution, serving 90,000 students each year.

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