Community Colleges Explain American Economic Miracle

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Here's a mystery for you: Americans constitute about 5 percent of the world's population -- but produce more than one third of the world's wealth.

Why is that?

Here's a theory.

Education.

Specifically, higher education.

More specifically -- community colleges.

Think about it.

On the whole, our K-12 schools don't stand out in international comparisons. In fact, when it comes to test scores, our K-12 system comes out somewhere in about the top one third of industrialized countries.

What then?

Well -- what's the most unusual thing about educational system in the United States?

Access -- all lifetime long.

In most countries, only the elite students attend college -- either the economic elite who buy the privilege or the intellectual elite who can perform on high stakes tests when they turn 18.

And it's true -- we have our elite universities, filled with the children of privilege and attainment.

But we also have a complex and open-ended system that makes it possible for first generation students to break through that all-important barrier and also allows people to return to school whenever they feel the need.

In short, we have community colleges -- which maintain access to education in an era when the nation's only chance of competing against the sweatshops of the world is to continually educate and re-educate its workforce.

Fortunately in Rim Country, we also have Gila Community College -- which has reported an amazing 40 percent rise in enrollment at its Payson and Globe campuses this year.

Of course, community college enrollment typically jumps during economic down turns -- as people seek training to adapt to the changing workplace. But nationally, community college enrollment has risen only modestly and in Maricopa County, community college enrollment is actually drifting downward.

All that makes the accomplishments of Gila Community College the more noteworthy -- especially the innovative and open-ended effort the new dean of the Payson campus has made to serve the needs of the community despite severe limitations on resources.

So the local campus has developed wonderful training programs for nurses and firefighters, plus a creative business development program. In addition, the campus has developed a partnership with Northern Arizona University to make it possible to get a four-year degree without ever leaving the Rim.

Moreover, Payson Dean Pam Butterfield has worked tirelessly to recruit experts from the community to serve as adjunct instructors.

And she's accomplished all this despite an absurd bureaucratic injustice that forces the Gila County campuses to operate under the administrative umbrella of Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher. As a result, the local campuses get about half as much per student credit hour. That's why adjunct faculty often get one third to one half as much as they would for teaching the same course in the Valley.

Still, the college here wonderfully exemplifies the community connection, accessibility and continual innovation that make two-year colleges so essential on the American social and economic landscape.

National studies show that the 1,200 community colleges nationwide enroll more than 6 million students -- one third of them minorities and 40 percent of them first-generation students.

Lifetime earnings for someone with an associate's degree total about $1.6 million, compared to $400,000 for someone who stops after high school.

Moreover, community college provides training for 60 percent of nurses and 80 percent of police officers and firefighters.

Lamentably, we seem always on the brink of strangling the golden geese that sustain us -- as evidenced by constricted budgets that nationally force community colleges to turn away students and inexorably rising fees and tuition that will eventually force community colleges to padlock opportunity's door.

So we must continue to rely on gifted administrators like Dean Butterfield, who can stretch scarce resources -- and on the support of an alert public.

Because that's the only way this nation can continue to defy history and explanation on into the 21st Century.

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