An often overlooked corner of the higher-education world had a moment in the national spotlight this month, as political pundits descended in full, seagull-like strength on President Obama’s proposal to “reduce the cost of community college to zero.” The editorial takes were strong and varied, with some in support and some opposed, but nearly all seemed to subscribe to the same fallacy about community college.
“Community college is great if it helps you get a bachelor’s degree,” wrote Michelle Weise in the Wall Street Journal. “But only one in five students attending these institutions goes on to earn the degree within six years.”
The myth that community college is beneficial only as a ramp to a bachelor’s is a stubborn one. In reality, community colleges offer education that is perfectly adequate for getting jobs, partly because many of them are forward-thinking portals for alternative-credential education. In other words, precisely because they are not just gateways to bachelor’s degrees.
Weise is a proponent of competency-based training, which we at Grovo feel is, indeed, among the most valuable forms of accreditation available to students. In the same article—which is actually a fairly agnostic promotion of competency-based training dressed up as “Obama’s Dead-End Community College Plan” in order to make it into the Wall Street Journal—Weise notes that plenty of jobs are available to candidates who have credentials other than a bachelor’s degree. “Many employers,” in fact, “demand more and higher academic credentials because of their dissatisfaction with the quality of degree-holders.
“We should turn our attention to innovation springing up in alternative credentials, competency-based programs and micro-certifications that validate what a student actually knows and can do.” Music to our Grovite ears! In fact, our enthusiasm for alternative credentials is why we like community colleges. Often, they offer students access to exactly the kind of training and certification that leads to employment.
It makes sense that community colleges have become access points for a new breed of credentials that are immediately applicable towards employment. Yes, community colleges offer drama courses and classes where you read The Aeneid. They also happen to be institutions that educate people who, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, generally find themselves in need of a boost to their job preparedness. It’s no surprise that local industry would directly assist a community college to offer curricula that will turn local job seekers into the skilled employees the companies need. This is a win-win-win situation with nary a bachelor’s degree in sight.
Take, for example, the example of Harper College in Illinois, which Inside Higher Ed cited for its collaboration with local manufacturing companies to develop “stackable credentials” that students can obtain quickly, put to use working at those companies, and while doing so, continue their education. These students undergo a “hybrid approach” to learning, with a combination of credentials that don’t uniformly need to be learned through in-person training. Some are taken online, some are taken in-person (sometimes taught directly by someone from the company for which they aspire to work) and some are blended.
Community colleges are also embracing badges. And it makes sense, because badges are competition only for other forms of legitimate credentials, which happen to be the entire raison d’être of four-year universities. For everyone else, they’re great: cheap, modular, credible certifications in applicable topics that tell employers far more about the applicant than traditional name-heavy sheepskins. Community colleges are adopting a model of being something close to resellers of this type of digital education. That’s a real value-added service to community college students who interact with one trusted, local-industry-serving institution and are able to get quick and cheap accreditation.
The future of alternative credentials is bright. At a time of ballooning costs of higher education and diminishing returns on the job preparedness of it, we’re witnessing the return of the types of direct, trade- and skill-specific training programs that employment relied upon for hundreds of years. The concept of a bachelor’s degree being necessary for a job is a much more recent phenomenon, and if the current trend continues, increasingly a dated one.