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President's call for vocational schools highlights higher education issues

Howard Community College faculty, staff and students crowded into the nearly completed Science, Engineering and Technology Building Wednesday afternoon to install a time capsule filled with academic items that will be reopened in 2066. (Andrew Michaels, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As the president of a community college less than 10 miles from the White House, I was surprised to hear that President Donald Trump believes “many people don’t know what a community college means or represents” and that schools like mine should instead be considered “vocational schools,” a moniker of an earlier era. (Spoken to Republican members of Congress at a retreat on Jan. 31, 2018.)

Roughly 12 million students are enrolled in community colleges in the nation — about 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates — which tells me that many people understand what we do. But the call for more “vocational schools” does highlight two important issues in higher education: the increased need for both middle skills training in our nation and for even more awareness of the expansive workforce development role that community colleges already play.

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More than half of the U.S. labor market — 53 percent — is made up of middle skills jobs. Some are in more traditional “vocational” fields: auto repair, heating ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and electrical installation. With technologies in these areas advancing rapidly, though, all of these fields require post-secondary education for workers to attain the middle skills jobs that can boost them out of poverty.

Throughout the past year, Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) has demonstrated exceptional progress in refocusing its academic programs and workforce development plans.   

Community colleges’ tight partnerships with various industries allow us to update curricula in real time as workforce needs evolve and to link students directly to apprenticeships that move them into the labor market. Nationwide there are over 500,000 apprentices learning job skills while earning wages. Other middle skills job categories have grown rapidly in the last 20 years but are not traditionally associated with “vocational” schools: health care technicians (radiology, surgery, pharmacy), for example, and workers in cybersecurity, computer programming and information technology. For entry or advancement, many of these fields require certificates or credentialing — most frequently offered at community colleges.

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Unlike vocational schools, though, community colleges also offer academic programs that allow students to complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at much lower costs than tuition at four-year schools. We also offer flexible class schedules for the 62 percent of our students who work, so they can study in the evenings or weekends. Millions of community college students transfer to four-year schools after their two-year start, a boost that makes higher education accessible for low-income learners and increases their long-term earning potential.

Specialized programs for returning and displaced workers are commonplace at community colleges, as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants show. Highly educated workers also find classes at my school, Montgomery College: Half of M.C. students in our biotechnology workshops last year held doctoral degrees.

The nature of work is changing rapidly and an increasing number of American job seekers are simply not qualified for today’s jobs.

Connecting workforce needs to education and training that prepares workers is a laudable goal. The president might find, upon closer inspection, that community colleges are already providing such opportunities across the country. In keeping with the spirit of the 1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education, which expanded community colleges to serve returning service people, we are continuing to serve our communities in ways that ways fill important gaps in education and training for our nation.

DeRionne Pollard (Twitter: @DrPollard_MC) is the president of Montgomery College in Maryland; she testified to the United States Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week on the topic of college affordability.

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