Community Colleges Key To Economic Recovery

August 11, 2009|By Carolane Williams

Recently, I was honored as a member of the board of the American Association of Community Colleges to be one of six community college presidents invited to join President Obama for the unveiling of his "American Graduation Initiative." This unprecedented federal commitment will spur new and innovative work force training programs, offer options for free online learning and provide capital funding for renovation and/or new construction.

The goal is to assist community colleges to do what they do best - and what they have always done - educate and train people today for tomorrow's careers. Rarely has the work force development mission of community colleges been as important or understood on a national level as it is today (though I suspect the economy and double-digit unemployment rates have added a sense of urgency to this issue).

As Baltimore's only community college, founded in 1947, Baltimore City Community College will bring expanded benefits to city residents because of Mr. Obama's initiative. Enrolling more city residents as undergraduates than any college or university in the state, BCCC will be better positioned to deliver on its service mission:

* We will continue to serve as the much-needed gateway annually for 22,000 credit and noncredit students who aspire to earn an associate degree and transfer to a four-year college or university;

* We will further existing work force training programs in the life sciences and construction for those who wish to earn and use their two-year degree or one-year certificate for immediate employment; and,

* We will bring many more resources to bear to provide job skills training and re-training to those who need help to re-establish themselves in the work force.

Community colleges have a strong history of responding to the needs of students, employers and their communities despite what I term the "middle child" syndrome - the condition of being sandwiched between K-12 systems and the universities, despite being invisible and underfunded in comparison to four-year institutions. We are able to quickly adapt to meet the community's needs while furthering our mission to provide access and opportunity for all.

The Maryland Center for Construction Technology (MCCT), BCCC's state-of-the-art educational facility at 901 N. Milton Ave. in East Baltimore, will provide degree, certificate and short-term training to students - particularly neighborhood residents in need of employable skills. The objective of the center is to produce a pipeline of skilled job candidates for current and future job growth in the construction trades as well as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC)-related employment.

It's no longer true that elite four-year institutions shun work force training, and BCCC and other community colleges have been quick to adapt and partner with them. BCCC's new Life Sciences Institute at the University of Maryland (UMB) BioPark, slated to open this fall, is one of the nation's most innovative partnerships between a university graduate school and a community college. The institute will meet the growing needs of Maryland's bioscience industry while opening up work opporutnities to Baltimore City residents and those from the surrounding communities.

The president clearly recognizes the essential role community colleges play in making higher education affordable and accessible to millions of potential students. He obviously understands community colleges are able to respond quickly to the needs of local employers by offering degree and certificate programs that can produce the educated and skilled work force needed to turn the economy around.

Beyond this, President Obama correctly concludes that community colleges are uniquely situated to bridge the gap between work force shortages in career fields like bioscience and healthcare and the millions of Americans who need to train or re-train quickly for new careers. Undoubtedly, his American Graduation Initiative will greatly enhance these efforts.

As Congress considers Mr. Obama's initiative, I urge all who have a vested interest in turning the economy around to lend their voices and enthusiastic support to making this happen. Call or write your congressional representatives today!

Carolane Williams is the president of Baltimore City Community College. Her e-mail is cwilliams@bccc.edu.

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