I have just begun my 47th year teaching physics at the college level, and although my entire career was spent at four year colleges, I did some part time teaching at two community colleges as well. I don't claim to be an expert, but I did learn that the community colleges have many students who are motivated, bright and far more mature than they were at an earlier attempt at college.
The institutions have other students as well. People looking for a convenient way to take a course or two, and a large contingent of individuals who are seeking a career. Seemingly, the mindset of government has settled on this group as representing the raison d'etre of the community college system and the conversation is centered around terms like training, career, Labor Department partnership and employment and earnings outcomes.
Somehow a vast enterprise that many had hoped would serve as an alternative path toward a college degree, with all the learning outcomes that the degree used to stand for, was subsumed in a process for providing jobs. The question we must ask then, particularly about community colleges, but also about many strongly career oriented colleges, is: Are we misleading our students? Are we prematurely sending them on a path to become workers instead of leaders? Craftsmen and middle level managers, but not creators, visionaries, risk takers?
Not that there is anything wrong with the former outcomes. Most of us -- even some who bear the lofty title of professor -- are really not much more than journeymen trying to do an honest and effective job. But these are outcomes that are determined by circumstances, by the economy, by fortune, by need.
They should not be goals set by a postsecondary institution, let alone by a government. The goals of a community college, like the goals of a college, should be to contribute to the transformation of the individual, to sharpen his/her thinking skills, to expose students to a wealth of ideas, and to create the lifelong learner who is an active participant in the intellectual life of society, even as s/he is engaged in a more prosaic career.
College should be sending a message of internal growth that creates the confidence to deal with a rapidly changing world, to know, to understand, to explore, and to think. Interestingly, these factors are essential ingredients in career success as well. Rare is the individual who will spend his/her career in the subject area for which s/he was originally trained. Change is everywhere, incessant and demanding. The nursing graduate who cannot continually adapt to methods, new techniques, and to new equipment is probably obsolete on the day s/he graduated. The same is true for the laboratory technician, the pharmacist, the business person, and the counselor.
Yes, we must have career preparation. People do need jobs and they need entry level skills. More, the potential for a job is a powerful motivating factor. But students must also be prepared for the challenges of change, the new demands of an evolving society, and the new environment which both limited resources and the accelerating scientific discoveries are creating.
The people teaching at community colleges and at career oriented four year schools are as fully qualified as many of the people teaching at research universities, and the fundamental reservoir of talent, of ideas, of a love of learning is as intense and as broad in a community college environment as anywhere else. There is so much more to the community college than what is appropriate for alignment with the Department of Labor, as useful as such tie-ins may be.
The intellectual discourse, and the leadership emanating from the Department of Education, should focus first and foremost on education. Our young people must continually hear the importance of learning, not for any ulterior purpose, but for itself. Just as law schools teach law, while review courses prepare lawyers, the mission of postsecondary entities should be to educate, and only as a secondary goal to prepare for careers.