Making the Case for Community Colleges

Looking at it one way — maybe the way most community-college presidents choose to view things — it certainly was a tough stretch from a public-relations standpoint.
Indeed, the headlines following the release of two reports — from the Boston Foundation and the Commonwealth Corp. — were certainly not flattering. “Massachusetts Community Colleges Slammed Twice in One Week,” “Report: Massachusetts Community Colleges Fail in Preparing Students for Careers,” “Report Says Community Colleges Falling Short with Health Majors,” and “Mass. Community Colleges Slammed in 2nd Report This Week” were among the offerings (see story, page 18).
Like we said, not a good week PR-wise, at least on the surface. But we think there’s much more to these accounts — one of which says that many health care graduates are not fully ready for the careers they’ve chosen, while the other suggests that community colleges need to do more to close what the authors call a growing jobs-skills mismatch.
While most community-college presidents, including several in this market, got their backs up when the reports were released and spent most of their time defending their institutions and assailing the accounts (and some of that was and is warranted), we prefer to look at the week that was in late November in a very different way.
And that is from the perspective of opportunity, which we believe is buried in these reports somewhere amid several headline-grabbing suggestions — such as merging a few of the Boston-area community colleges, narrowing the mission of all 15 instituitions to workforce-related initiatives, and a centralization effort that would do away with the local boards of trustees.
That opportunity comes in the form of exposure, or recognition, regarding the vital role community colleges are playing and will continue to play in both economic development and workforce development across the state — and also the possibility that this recognition will eventually lead to greater support as the schools go about their work.
The Boston Foundation report notes that “Massachusetts is at a crossroads in its capacity to compete — and the ability of its residents to fully participate in the current economy and the rewards that employment brings,” and that community colleges will play a critical role in reversing many disturbing trends regarding the state’s skilled workforce. It suggests that several steps can be taken to make the schools more effective in that role. All this is much too difficult to cram into a short headline, and thus we are left with “Report Slams Community Colleges,” which isn’t entirely accurate but does catch the reader’s eye.
Over the past several years, community colleges have been involved in almost every major workforce-related initiative in this region, from the Healthcare Workforce Partnership of Western Mass. to the new Training and Workforce Options program involving Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical College, to initiatives involving the area’s precision-machining sector and efforts to draw more people into that profession. And they have done their work extremely well, and under great duress in the form of reduced state funding in the wake of the recession.
None of this seems to have caught the attention of the Boston Foundation report’s authors, which is frustrating, but not the main point of this discussion. That point is that individuals and groups like the foundation and Commonwealth Corp. are finally waking up to the vital role being played by community colleges in this state, and that even more can and should be expected from them moving forward.
We can’t blame the community college presidents in this market for being defensive and critical of many of the recommendations in these reports. But most of those steps, especially the centralization of governance and a narrowing of the community-college mission, are not likely to happen any time soon, if at all.
But what might happen because of all this attention — and needs to happen — is for state leaders to adequately support these institutions, and in the many forms that the word ‘support’ connotes.