On July 14, in a speech to nearly 2,000 people at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., President Obama unveiled a sweeping new education program aimed at boosting the country’s flagging economy. A 10-year, $12 billion program, the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), outlines the administration’s vision for community colleges and takes a three-pronged approach. First, the AGI will offer competitive grants to community colleges to spur innovation and “put colleges and employers together to create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom.” Second, the initiative will fund bricks and mortar projects to help community colleges renovate and modernize buildings and classrooms that may be in decay from years of underfunding and neglect. And lastly, Obama described how the AGI will offer an online, open-source clearinghouse of academic courses so community colleges nationwide can expand class offerings without expanding their facilities.1
For followers of the Obama administration’s troublingly business-centric education policies, the AGI follows a theme Obama has reiterated in interviews and speeches on the campaign trail and since his election. As he wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Our community colleges can serve as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future.”2
This theme—that community colleges should serve as job-training centers to help revitalize the economy—is a popular talking point among members of his administration. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained to a group of Ohio college presidents that community colleges are “an extremely important part of restoring our economy and ensuring our students can compete.”3 Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described the community college as “literally a conveyor belt to allow people to upgrade their skills when they are going from X job to Y profession.”4 In addition, Jill Biden, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, and serves as an administration spokeswoman promoting community colleges, told The New York Times that “’Community colleges are the way of the future ‘ […]. ‘Now with people losing their jobs, they’re a great place to go for new training.’”5 Even Obama’s pick of Martha Kanter, a former administrator for one of the nation’s largest community college systems, as an Education Department undersecretary was cast as a move underscoring the administration’s focus on job training: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s report on her selection was titled “Obama Pick Shows Focus on Training Work Force.”3
And this vision has ample support beyond the Beltway—from politicians, national community college organizations, community college presidents, and at least one private philanthropic organization.6 The Association of Community College Trustees President and CEO J. Noah Brown says, “Community colleges serve as economic engines, strengthening the fabric that binds our communities together—jobs”; the American Association of Community Colleges adds that the President’s policies will provide a “big win for [community college] job-training programs.”7 A recently released College Board report, “Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America’s Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges,” from The National Commission on Community Colleges, a group made up of ten current or former community college presidents, places job-training and workforce development at the core of the community college’s mission. The commission’s chair, Augustine P. Gallego stated, “We have to win the skills race, and we have to reply on the nation’s 1,200 community colleges to do that.”8
The tragic flaw in the administration’s focus on job training is that it is not a panacea for political and economic policies that have created an unfair, unequal, and unresponsive economic environment, one that has seen the wages, benefits, and standard of living of working Americans plummet.9 The community college should not be seen as a place to hide workers during the downturn or warehouse people who need to be able to depend on their own political agency to forge a more stable and sustainable future. The American Graduation Initiative, then, is little more than a harbinger signaling the end of the academic function and democratic ideal that the community college was designed to uphold: to provide a liberal arts education that affords all students the chance to transfer to four-year colleges and universities to earn a bachelor’s degree.10
For the Obama administration and those who support their education policies and discourse, “education” has become narrowly defined as “job training” and “workforce development.”11 As a result, those attending community colleges are no longer viewed as citizens or learners (or even at times as students) but rather as economic entities, as “workers” or a “workforce.” No longer is the talk about teaching and the intellectual and social development of students, but rather about “high demand jobs,” “economic stimulus,” “training,” and “skill development.” The message repeated over and over again from politicians, community college leaders, and the media is that, with respect to the community college, what matters is job training and how quickly one completes it—and that what’s good for business and its bottom line is paramount.
Yet there is strong evidence that job training (and re-training) does not provide the economic stimulus or promote the economic equality that its proponents argue. A recent study from the Labor Department found that the benefits of the nation’s largest federal job training program were “small or nonexistent” for laid-off workers.”12 A Detroit Free Press editorial noted on the day of the President’s visit to Macomb Community College that focusing on job training is “not a bad idea on its face. But Michigan has emphasized job retraining for months, if not years now—and yet people keep losing their jobs, even in supposedly hot fields such as health care.”13 Bruce Fuller took this argument even further, writing in the New York Times that “Politicians’ obsessions with making schools and college more vocational in character are unlikely to lift the economy,” citing research from the University of Chicago showing that “today’s workers don’t need vocational skills, they need better ‘non-cognitive’ skills—like the capacity to communicate effectively or to cooperatively solve problems.”14
What’s absent in the Obama administration’s education policies and discourse is acknowledgment of the community college’s academic and collegiate mission—that is, the role of the community college in providing a liberal arts education that teaches and encourages students to become informed and engaged citizens in a democratic society.15 By definition a liberal arts education requires courses in a broad number of subjects in the arts and sciences as opposed to the very narrow subject matter of training.16 In the community college, these would be the general education courses traditionally offered in the first and second years of college, courses in American government, U.S. and World History, psychology, sociology, biology, chemistry, art history, and English courses involving writing and English and American literature. A liberal arts education teaches students that learning and knowledge itself is inherently valuable rather than simply a set of skills to be mastered for a particular job. Clearly a liberal arts education is not a cure-all for the country’s societal ills. But as Robert Reich told Bill Moyers, “There is no substitute for an active, informed citizenry.”17 In fact, it is an informed and engaged citizenry, and not jobs, that binds a community together.
The AGI also ignores the fact that a vast majority of students entering the community college directly from high school have the stated intention of transferring to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. For them, attending a community college isn’t about getting a certificate or training for a job. That so few community college students, particularly low-income or minority students, actually ever transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree should be the focus of administration education policies.18
The very idea of getting an education is not to serve someone else or their interests but to identify and serve our own. John Dewey made this a cornerstone of what makes education socially viable as opposed to the views of those such as Charles Prosser, or his modern day equivalent, Charles Murray, who advocate for the separation of vocational training and education. It would be objectionable in any set of economic and political circumstances to limit the educational opportunities of students, particularly students who don’t have access to the country’s most elite four-year colleges and universities, but it is most objectionable in a time where training leads nowhere. What jobs, exactly, are these students supposed to train for? Who can say with any degree of certainty what jobs will be in demand in five years, let alone ten? Or as an economist recently told Michael Luo of the New York Times in the story “Job Training May Fall Short of High Hopes,” “I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty, and I have been doing it for 20 years, what the hot jobs are going to be.”12
Instead of being educated to make informed choices of their own, community college students are being thrown back into dependent and subservient positions in an economic moment of unequaled peril. Instead of being educated to insert themselves into the political process of restructuring a society of fair values and green energy, they are being trained to stay out of the way and hope that their wages, which haven’t kept pace with corporate profits, will be enough to feed their children.19
Simply put, job training and workforce development is indoctrination. It is not education. It has no socially constructive or just outcome, particularly at a time of upheaval and uncertainty. It is a failure of everything that a liberal arts education contributes to a just and democratic society.
Job training will not change the corrupt values of Wall Street or bridge the gap in wealth that has grown from unseemly to grotesque.20 The argument currently being made that people need jobs, any jobs, first and that justice and political enfranchisement can wait is backward. The way forward for those just entering higher education and for the millions of displaced workers is not another dead end or soon-to-be outsourced under-paid job with few or no benefits. The way forward is an educational system grounded in ideas of social justice and democracy.
Community colleges are perhaps the last bastion of democratic higher education in this country. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 95 percent of community colleges are open admission, and when compared to four-year institutions, they enroll larger percentages of nontraditional, low-income and minority students.18 Depending how students are counted, community colleges enroll anywhere from 35 percent to nearly 50 percent of all undergraduates and in the current economic crisis their enrollments are soaring despite cuts in state and local funding.21 With four-year institutions becoming more and more expensive to attend and out of reach for even middle class families,22 the community college continues to offer an affordable, realistic alternative.
President Obama is right: Community colleges matter; they are vital in any economy. But not as an economic refuge. They’re vital as institutions and spaces whose mission must be to foster the democratic ideal of providing an education that offers students from all backgrounds the chance to realize their full potential as human beings.
- “Remarks by the President on “The American Graduation Initiative,” Macomb Community College, Warren, MI, July 14, 2009. [↩]
- Barack Obama, “Rebuilding Something Better,” Washington Post, July 12, 2009. [↩]
- Kelly Field, “Obama Pick Shows Focus on Training Work Force,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 10, 2009. [↩] [↩]
- David Moltz, “Building Up Job Training,” Inside Higher Ed, June 19, 2009. [↩]
- Matthew Saltmarsh, “Jill Biden Says Community Colleges Are a Key U.S. Export,” New York Times, July 8, 2009. [↩]
- Scott Jaschik, “Gates Foundation to Spend Big on Community Colleges,” Inside Higher Ed, November 12, 2008. [↩]
- “In Tough Times, Colleges to Spotlight Economic Ties,” Community College Times, November 24, 2008; Megan Eckstein, “Community Colleges See Stimulus Bill as Bonanza for Their Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 17, 2009. [↩]
- Elyse Ashburn, “Community colleges are Key to Shoring Up the U.S. Economy, Report Says,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2008. [↩]
- David Walsh, “A Rising Tide of Social Misery,” World Socialist Web Site, July 16, 2009. [↩]
- See Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer, The Collegiate Function of Community Colleges, Jossey-Bass, 1987; Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel, The Diverted Dream, Oxford University Press, 1989; Kevin J. Dougherty, The Contradictory College, State University of New York Press, 1994; and John S. Levin et al., Community College Faculty at Work, Palgrave, 2006. [↩]
- Washington’s emphasis on job training and its seeming disregard for the liberal arts did not start with the Obama Administration. In citing her reasons for resigning from the Margaret Spellings-led Department of Education, Diane Auer Jones noted that the department was involved in a “misguided attempt to really narrow the focus of higher education and to almost vocationalize all of higher education.” In Paul Basken, “Liberal Arts Undervalued by Education Department, Official Says After Quitting,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2008. Proof? “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” a report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education makes no mention of the liberal arts. [↩]
- Michael Luo, “Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes,” New York Times, July 6, 2009. [↩] [↩]
- “Above all, Mr. President, Michigan needs promise of jobs,” Editorial, Detroit Free Press, July 14, 2009. [↩]
- Bruce Fuller, “Why We Educate Our Children,” New York Times, October 22, 2008. [↩]
- Unfortunately, few voices within the community college have publicly questioned Obama administration education policies and the social implications of the community college essentially assuming the role of a trade school with little, if any regard, for the liberal arts and critical literacy. Two such voices are Sean A. Fanelli, the president of Nassau Community College in New York and David Berry, executive director of the Community College Humanities Association. For Fanelli, “The situation for the humanities at two-year colleges may only worsen [… ] as politicians and business leaders turn to community colleges to help revive the economy without regard for the important role the liberal arts play in educating students.” See Jeffrey J. Selingo, “2-Year Colleges Worry That Job Training May Displace the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2009. Berry has expressed concern “that the traditional function of teaching core subjects and the humanities can be overshadowed” by the emphasis on workforce development. See Andy Guess, “A Humanities Push for Community Colleges,” Inside Higher Ed, January 14, 2008. [↩]
- The role of a liberal arts education in four-year institutions, including at the traditional liberal arts college, is also under attack with more and more four-year institutions feeling pressured to offer job training. See “Victor E. Ferrall Jr., “Can Liberal Arts Colleges Be Saved,” Inside Higher Ed, Februrary 11, 2008; Patricia Cohen, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” New York Times, February 25, 2009; Peter Schmidt, “Number of Colleges That Fit the ‘Liberal Arts’ Mold is Falling Study Finds,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 16, 2009. [↩]
- Interview with Robert Reich, Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, June 12, 2009. [↩]
- Stephen Provasnik and Michael Planty, “Community Colleges: Special Supplement to The Condition of Education 2008,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, August 2008. [↩] [↩]
- Jeanne Sahadi, “Workers Lose Traction Over Past 10 Years,” CNNMoney.com, September 2, 2006. [↩]
- Sahadi, “Wealth Gap Widens,” CNNMoney.com, August 29, 2006. [↩]
- Valerie Strauss, “Community Colleges See Demand Spike, Funding Slip,” Washington Post, July 1, 2009. [↩]
- Andy Kroll, “Shut Out: How the Cost of Higher Education Is Dividing Our Country,” TomDispatch.com, April 2, 2009. [↩]