We Might Not All Need a 4-Year Degree, but We All Need an Education

With the possible exception of political polling, no industry has taken a beating in the recent past quite like higher education.

The list of complaints about higher education are all familiar:

  • Colleges drown students in debt.
  • A degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a good job.
  • Colleges do a poor job of producing graduates with the skills employers need.

The complaints about higher education listed above are rooted in some truth. One of the few pleasures of getting older is not having to contemplate what it would be like to graduate with $150,000 in student loan debt—and have to figure out how to be grateful and excited to get a job paying $30,000.

So, while at this age a long bike ride can hurt in a new way every time, at least I’m not staring at a $700 student loan payment on an $800 paycheck. This is the scenario facing too many recent graduates.

However, the data shows the answer is not to try your luck in the job market with a high school diploma.

So how do we solve the affordability problem?

One solution already exists. Community colleges, which are relatively new to the world of higher education, help square the college affordability circle. These institutions also play an important role in local economic development.

I’ll give a couple of examples:

I have a friend who, after a few years in the workforce, decided surviving on $700 a month and “borrowing” breakfast from the free buffet at a hotel near his office was no way to live. He began attending classes at his local community college. He started with one class, and four years later earned his bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees—with a minimal amount of student debt.

Today he owns a business in St. Charles County and is working on his Ph.D.

But you don’t need to start a business and earn a Ph.D. to validate the existence of community colleges.

Every year, St. Charles Community College graduates hundreds of students who are workforce ready, with credentials offering students quality jobs and a chance at having a middle-class lifestyle.

In fact, community colleges are so important to the health of cities that Atlanticcolumnist James Fallows named having and supporting a community college as one of his “11 Signs a City Will Succeed.” In his research, Fallows describes how community colleges play an important role in training students for jobs, and are one of the one most effective existing ways to reduce income equality:

“Just about every world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor-replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential-housing patterns, the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage.”

Fallows’ statement is not just a theory.

My office is located just down the road from St. Charles Community College. Over the years I’ve seen the type of students Fallows describes. These students may not have an opportunity to attend a four-year school, or may find the work of a welder far more fulfilling than the work of an accountant (and I can’t say I blame them). While they come from varying backgrounds, these students graduate from community college and play an important role in the local economy.

These students are employed by some of our county’s most dynamic businesses.

These students lead some of our county’s most dynamic businesses.

These students start some of our county’s most dynamic businesses, often from the incubator here at EDC Community and Business Partners.

Our educational future cannot be graduates with $150,000 in debt taking $30,000 jobs.

That’s a reality we can’t accept for our students and communities, and we don’t need to wait for some new federal government program to come along and change higher education for the better. We can reduce educational cost for students and create an educated workforce by shining a spotlight on the good work of community colleges.

So I begin by saying thank you to St. Charles Community College, and to the rest of the community colleges in this region.

James Fallows is right. We couldn’t do it without you.

Greg Prestemon is President and CEO of the St. Charles County EDC Business and Community Partners.

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