In college I heard a joke that asked, "How many community college students does it take to change a tire?" and answered, "Only one, but they'd get three hours credit for it." While I was trying to decide whether even to give a fake smile at this lame joke, I was reminded that community colleges are often seen as an easy route through college courses.
Those who dismiss community colleges are missing the vital role these two-year schools play in their communities. Increasingly, these colleges have incorporated into their mission the objective of breaking the cycle of poverty. "Community should be defined not only as a region to be served, but also as a climate to be created," says the American Association of Community Colleges, the advocacy organization for the 1,100 U.S. community colleges. If this sounds like the community organizer's approach to college education - it is. Community colleges are expanding their open door admissions practices to include at-risk students and are creating sustainable development projects that reach beyond job training programs.
Maysville Community College, an example of educational outreach, serves a northern Kentucky community of 9,400. MCC has an acclaimed 3-year old program, in partnership with local HUD authorities, that offers three-week-long intensive computer classes at two public housing complexes. The program has taken college level courses and tailored them to a population of previously unreachable students. College president Hans J. Kuss explains that the school "is not bound by the old paradigm that students must enroll and study at the college campus. With Internet and related computer technology, the college can bring a campus to any student who seeks an education."
The initiative has torn down obstacles that often impede participation in higher education, including lack of childcare and transportation and high cost. While the average annual tuition of community colleges is $1,500, Maysville Community College has enrolled dozens of students in public housing by offering free tuition, free course materials, and on-site computer labs. The MCC-housing authority partnership has gained attention at the state and national level because of its innovation, the program's high retention rates, and the job placement rate of 25 percent. MCC president Kuss is now part of a taskforce that seeks over the next decade to connect Kentucky's 125 HUD projects to community college campuses.
The project's commitment to its new students goes deeper than simple Good Samaritan acts. Program administrators have opened their doors to these "non-traditional" students when other, four-year colleges and federal job training programs have not, asking them, "What would make it possible for you to pursue a college education?" and responding to the answers.
TWENTY-FOUR OTHER rural community colleges in economically distressed areas, including Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Texas-Mexico border, and American Indian reservations of the West are acting as agents of economic change through the Rural Community College Initiative, a 10-year project of the Ford Foundation. The initiative emphasizes "acknowledging local cultural context above all" and "creating jobs that sustain local culture and re-invests in the community." The emphasis on the cultural and economic heritage of a region in order to create sustainable jobs allows participating colleges to build an economic future based on community and civic relationships.
These rural community college initiatives "have been better (for our community) because they... involv[e] local people to solve local issues," explains Felicia Casados, a dean at Northern New Mexico Community College. The college established the community's first community development corporation, bringing a technical call center to the area and recruiting and training 25 technicians through community college programs. These local projects are increasing community participation in an otherwise-stagnant local economy, not only training people for work but actually creating jobs.
Twenty-first century community colleges are working to break the cycles of poverty that have kept low-income students from the classroom and the job market. Increasing access to higher education and contributing to economic prosperity, these two-year colleges are pushing federal agencies, educators, legislators, and their local communities to ask themselves, "How many community colleges does it take to stop the revolving door of poverty?" And maybe they ought to get credit for it.
- Elizabeth Newberry
ELIZABETH NEWBERRY is editorial assistant of Sojourners. For more information visit the American Association of Community Colleges Web site, www.aacc.nche.edu.