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The Community College: Now And In 2015

Over the next decade, community colleges will continue to increase accessibility to higher education for adults in both urban and rural areas, while strengthening ties with employers and government. Photo by Rian Elizabeth

The following is a Q&A conducted with Trenton Hightower, who has been an Assistant Vice Chancellor in the Virginia Community College System since 2005. Hightower has worked in the community college industry for two decades, and got his start in education as a sales instructor with a training firm. With the benefit of such experience in the community college industry, Hightower discusses the demographics and local-value of community colleges today and opines on the evolution of community colleges over the next decade.

1. Are community colleges developing programs to meet the needs of a knowledge economy?

Yes, the community colleges are, fortunately, connected directly with the economic development of each of the communities they’re located in. The demographics of each community college can be different and you’ll find that each Community College is very in tune to a particular job, particular certifications and particular employers’ needs and specifically customize programs to meet their needs.

The other advantages they have right now is fact that the Department of Labor, the Department of Energy and several other federal and state agencies have recognized the community college as a viable means to gain credentials, certifications or meet community needs. They have awarded millions of dollars of grants to accommodate instructional needs, equipment needs and more importantly, reducing the costs and some scholarship fees.

We need more assistance in the scholarship area than ever before as students have less money to invest in their own future for higher stakes certifications.

2. Who is attending community colleges today?

The approximate average age of a community college across the country, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, is between the ages of 29 and 32. Therefore you have, as always in our history, a good amount of returning employees who are upgrading their skills and/or getting their degrees for the first time. You also have a strong component of traditional students, today more than ever because of the economy. You have more poor students, simply because people can’t afford four-year colleges when we cost a third of what they cost.

3. How do you balance the programming needs of adult, non-traditional students with those of traditional students? Do you notice a difference at all?

The Associate’s Degree work is going to be the same, associated to learning the curriculum applied to both audiences. In the Associate’s Degree environment, of course, many faculty are trained in having sensitivity to both a new student entering a community college for the first time—being at a younger age coming from high school—and adults returning fro the workforce, from 20 years in the workplace. There is some sensitivity training for the faculty in regards to accommodating those interests but the curriculum is pretty much the same and the same is asked on the academic side.

On the other hand you do have more corporate training, business training and working with business and industry targeted directly to adults and dealing more effectively with adults. In Virginia we’re highly invested in workforce development and just recently we received more assistance from the federal government in regards to a Department of Labor grant and we’ll be employing the same concept as we just talked about with the career coaches in high schools. We’re going to be applying that as a One-Stop at community colleges which will be adult career coaches working with individuals and coach them over the progress of their careers.

4. Is the community college student of today different from the ideal community college student of 2015?

Yes, the student of 2015, 2018 and 2020, the expectations are that many of the baby boomers will have made retirement age. As they make the decision to leave the workforce, a new era of computer-based individuals that is part of the Generation Y and Generation X which will be becoming the executive leaders of organizations, and also the middle managers and new employees. Online training, blended learning and creating a virtual educational division will become common in the year 2015, 2018 and 2020.

5. Expand on the development of the relationship between a community and its community college. How do community colleges respond to the needs of their communities?

Community colleges have a general rule of about 60 miles from any household across the United States—the idea is that you can reach any community college in about 60 minutes and it makes it more available for each and every person to attend a college.

In a small community college, which is the majority in the United States, they are the center of the community. You’ll find that their buildings, their facilities, their education, the number of people employed makes them one of the pillars of the community. The fact that they are a not-for-profit and they are looking for providing services even outside the scope of academics and working with communities, fundraising for community social events or other kinds of community events, puts them into a broad recognition of the community.

6. Does this relationship change in the education model of 2015?

No, as a matter of fact it becomes even more important based on the fact that you’ll have a lot of people virtually connecting to the educational process. The community college will still be a central place for people to look for get-togethers, meetings, social events, political events. You’ll notice that even our current President has been to three of our community colleges in the past year for his communications.

Community colleges are on a higher platform than ever before and they’re receiving more funding than before.

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