Jorge Perez, a professor of mathematics, first encountered a community college when he came to the United States from Chile in 1980. "To me, my first impression of the community college was kind of disappointing because of the level of mathematics that was taught, but once I started seeing the kinds of students that we were serving, I really bought into the idea of a community college. I realized that a community college is an engine for social mobility,” said Perez, who teaches at LaGuardia Community College, of the City University of New York. Perez became such a believer that he brokered a connection between a former student of his, who is now a dean at a Chilean university, and LaGuardia’s leadership, leading to the founding of the new Community College de Santiago this spring.
Community colleges are in the spotlight now more than ever. In the United States, President Obama has called for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020 (although an accompanying $12 billion in proposed funding never materialized ). Nonetheless, policymakers seem to have woken up to the fact that community colleges educate 46 percent of U.S. undergraduates  – and 58 percent of students in Israel, 20 percent in Korea and France, and 26 percent in Japan. “Even in countries where these institutions are new, student enrollment is substantial,” writes Rosalind Latiner Raby, co-editor of the book Community College Models  (Springer, 2009), which considers the development of community colleges, and, for lack of a better term, community college-like institutions, in about 30 countries. As Raby writes, India enrolls 54,519 students in these institutions, Thailand 13,000 (plus another 30,000 in short-term, non-degree programs), and Jordan, 20,000.
While the emergence of these institutions is not new, their visibility might be. “There is a tremendous dialogue as to what the local countries want and how to create a type of institution that is uniquely theirs,” Raby said in an interview. “It’s becoming a widely-discussed issue that mixes politics, economics and humanitarian concerns.” And even though two-year institutions are hardly unique to the United States, some features of U.S. community colleges – such as the ability to transfer to four-year institutions – are starting to appear for the first time in some countries.
“If you had asked most people outside the United States a decade ago, ‘What do you think of community colleges as an important element within your higher educational system,’ I think they would have blanched and said, ‘No, we don’t think so,’ ” said Tully Cornick, executive director of Higher Education for Development, which coordinates collaborations between American colleges and the United States Agency for International Development. “Traditional systems of higher education in many parts of the world have been fairly elitist and were designed to winnow out rather than increase access.”
Increasingly, however, Cornick said, “There is a recognition around the world, and it manifests itself somewhat differently [in different countries], that community colleges, as one element of the higher education system, have something very significant to offer to segments of the population -- youth at risk, or those who have left school and realize that they need skills development.”
Amid this growing global interest, American community colleges have been involved in promoting the development of similar institutions abroad. LaGuardia, for instance, signed an agreement with the Universidad Central de Chile to help create the Community College de Santiago. In creating the community college, “the board took into account, among other reasons, the great need existing in Chile of preparing students who after a period of two years at the university are prepared to get a job at the level known in Chile as technician,” Luis Merino, the Universidad Central’s vice rector of academic affairs, explained in an e-mail. “Well-prepared technicians are badly needed in our country. Ideally we should have the ratio of three technicians v. one professional prepared after studying during four or five years at the University undergraduate level. Instead we have the exact opposite, i.e. the ratio of three professionals v. one technician.”
The Community College de Santiago enrolled its first class, of about 180 students, in March. It costs less to attend the community college than Universidad Central – 900,000 pesos per year versus 1,500,000 (in U.S. currency, about $1,700 versus $2,800). In helping to develop the institution, LaGuardia provided expertise in administrative matters, and assisted in developing dual academic programs. Students can earn dual degrees, from the Community College de Santiago and LaGuardia, in accounting, business administration, computer technology/telecommunications, computer operations/computer network administration and security, and computer science. When students complete the two-year degree, they can get a job or transfer their credits and continue their studies at the Universidad Central.
“We do not necessarily expect that the majority of students will transfer into four-year programs at Universidad Central,” said Merino, the vice rector of academic affairs. “Instead we would prefer that a larger part of our graduates will go to work upon finishing their studies and after a period of time they’ll resume their studies at the university level.”
While Chile does have a system of technical colleges, this ability to transfer is a new concept in many places, including Chile, said Gail Mellow, LaGuardia Community College’s president. “To do this well, other countries must adapt a community college structure, not adopt our own, because local conditions are very distinctive. The challenge is really about open access and transfer. Those very new concepts are challenging to develop around the world,” Mellow said.
“Community colleges in the United States are very much part of a local economy, and we’re very different from the heartlands to northern New England to southern Texas. I think that’s the power of a community college -- that they’re expressive of local values and needs but they’re connected to a global belief system that says that higher education is absolutely necessary to make a more equitable workforce but also a more productive workforce.”
‘Community Colleges’ Around the World
“These institutions go by different names: community colleges, technical colleges, technical universities, polytechnics, further education (FE) institutions, technical and further education (TAFE) institutions, institutes of technology, colleges of technology, and junior colleges,” writes George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, in the preface to Global Development of Community Colleges, Technical Colleges and Further Education Programs . These institutions vary, he writes, in regards to whether they’re public, private non-profit or private for-profit; whether they focus on vocational education or general liberal arts; whether or not they allow for transfer of credits into universities; whether they are considered distinct from the higher education system or a part of it; and whether they serve older or younger students. “What, then, defines this sector?” Boggs writes. “Common elements include, for the most part, open access, a nonelitist orientation, a focus on the success of students in their learning, responsiveness to the education needs of local communities and their industries, and a willingness to be creative and to avoid bureaucratic processes. In most countries, the institutions lack the prestige of the elite universities even though the well-being of a country and its people usually depend more on the education levels of the majority rather than of a small minority.”
Much of the interest in community colleges internationally centers on their role in workforce training, said John Halder, president of Community Colleges for International Development, a nonprofit association. “That’s what’s caught people’s attention around the globe.”
Many partnerships to either build new institutions, or build capacity at existing community colleges abroad, are ongoing. For instance, CCID in 2006 signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Education in Georgia to help establish Gori Community College. Relying on various grants, the association and its members shared and translated a curriculum for the new institution, and have conducted training sessions on issues pertaining to pedagogy and student engagement.
“Over the years we’ve done a lot of similar work,” Halder said. The association has done extensive work in India, for instance, where CCID helped establish the Center for Vocational Education in Madras, which became Madras Community College. (India has since taken steps to aggressively expand its community college system. In 2009, Indira Gandhi National Open University announced plans  to set up 500 new community colleges by 2011.)
Community Colleges and Diplomacy
Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and a community college English instructor, has described  the community college concept as a key U.S. export. U.S. government agencies have promoted their establishment internationally.
The U.S. Department of State asked Linda Serra Hagedorn, interim chair and professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Iowa State University, to tour Indonesia in February to discuss community colleges and technical institutions. Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world and is of obvious strategic importance to the United States. “Our relationship right now is OK, but not great,” said Hagedorn. “We can make it great, we can strengthen those ties. I think education is a key to do that.”
“I was trying to explore what Indonesia could do for Indonesians, and indeed with assistance perhaps from the U.S., in developing a system that would be specific for their needs,” Hagedorn said of her visit. Indonesia does have polytechnic institutions but, said Hagedorn, they don’t have enough money: “It’s a poor country. When I visited these polytechnics, they had very well-meaning instructors, very optimistic young students with high hopes, working on very, very old equipment, working in environments that are less than ideal.” Hagedorn said she was interested in exploring a model in which industry could fund vocational education. “It needs an influx of additional finances. The Indonesian government alone I don’t think can afford to provide the level of funding required to create a country-wide educational system to support its citizens.”
On the other side of the spectrum, the government of a very rich country – Qatar – this spring signed a five-year, $45 million contract  with Houston Community College for assistance in developing an American-style community college. The Community College of Qatar is slated to open this fall – September 26. Essentially, the community college has contracted with HCC to hire faculty and teach a HCC curriculum in Qatar. “The intent at the end of five years is to withdraw from that contract and they will then take over,” said Mary Spangler, HCC’s chancellor. In its first year, the Community College of Qatar will offer coursework in English as a Second Language and associate degree programs in math, science, computer science and business.
“The leadership in Qatar is looking primarily to have the students who come to CCQ transfer to four-year institutions,” said Spangler. Qatar University would be the primary receiving institution. In addition, a number of four-year American institutions have branches in the country, including Texas A&M University at Qatar, which offers bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Stateside, Texas A&M is the second-largest receiving institution for HCC students.
HCC has a history working abroad, most recently contracting with Riyadh Community College, in Saudi Arabia, to help the institution achieve American accreditation. “I was the first woman to be invited into what has been an all-male university environment. They took me on a tour,” Spangler said. “They really did show their willingness to remove barriers that had been there for a very long time.”