Ever since they were created in the mid-20th Century, community colleges have struggled for legitimacy and respect.
They’ve been derided as the 13th grade. They have been called high school with ashtrays. They were the places students went when they couldn’t go anywhere else. The Harvards and Yales of the world looked down their noses at these underachieving interlopers.
But two-year institutions have come a long way since President Harry S. Truman — the only president to have not graduated from college — convened The President’s Commission on Higher Education in 1946 as World War II was ending and the U.S. was preparing for peace time.
The Truman Commission Report called for several significant changes in postsecondary education, including the creation of a network of public community colleges, which would be free of charge for “all youth who can profit from such education.” The commission popularized the phrase “community college” and shaped the future of two-year degree institutions in the U.S.
Since then, community colleges have steadily increased their reach and influence. They can be found in every state in the union. The institutions now number more than 1,100 and enroll over 12 million students, making it the country’s largest sector of public higher education. In 2014-15, the schools awarded 806,766 degrees and 516,820 certificates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The institutions range from tiny single-building rural schools to large, sprawling urban multi-campus conglomerates.
So community colleges leaders were aghast when President Donald J. Trump seemed to deride and dismiss the institutions last month, saying that community colleges should be called “vocational schools” because “a lot of people” don’t really know what community college “means or represents.”
Speaking to Republican members about workforce development at a congressional retreat at a West Virginia resort, Trump said: “The economy is so strong now, and so good, and so many companies are moving in that I really believe that that problem — it’s a big problem — is going to solve itself, but we’re working on it.
“We can invest in workforce development, job training and open new vocational schools, because we want every American to be able to reach their full, God-given potential.
“Vocational schools — today, you have community colleges and you have all of the — when I was growing up, we had vocational schools. And when I was going to school, I remember I was in high school, and there were people in class, one person in particular, he wasn’t like the greatest student. And he just wasn’t. And yet I saw him one day, and he was able to fix a car engine blindfolded. And everybody else was saying that’s amazing how talented he is. He had a different kind of a talent, and we should have vocational schools.
“You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry and all of these things. We don’t have that very much anymore. And I think the word ‘vocational’ is a much better word than in many cases a community college. A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents.”
Community college leaders said the president’s remarks showed a fundamental misunderstanding of community colleges, their mission and the work they do in building America’s workforce.
“President Trump’s statements that implied that we needed vocational schools instead of community colleges clearly demonstrated how little he knows about the community college mission,” said George Boggs, former president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “It was a shock to many of us because past presidents of both political parties have been so supportive of community colleges. I don’t think he is very aware of community colleges and the students who attend them.”
Said Antoinette Flores, postsecondary education policy analyst for the Center for American Progress: “It's not clear to me that the President knows the difference between community colleges and vocational schools. He stated that we needed to open more vocational schools, which misses the work that community colleges already do on this front.”
Trump’s attitude is a far cry from the term of President Barack Obama, who placed the two-year sector at the center of the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. Students flooded community college campuses. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and a longtime community college professor, provided unprecedented credibility. The second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Education was a former community college president. Obama hosted a White House Community College Summit, drawing worldwide attention to the historic mission of access and equity of community colleges. They were the halcyon days for community colleges.
But the current administration has demonstrated scant interest in community colleges. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has praised community colleges, but her main focus has been on K-12 education, school choice, and deregulation.
Trump’s remarks mask a deeper problem with the administration’s approach to workforce development programs, according to Andy Van Kleunen, chief executive officer of the National Skills Coalition. He sees a serious disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric about wanting to build the workforce and the action his administration has undertaken.
“We appreciate that, during the State of the Union, President Trump called out the need for a greater national investment in workforce development, job training, and vocational schools,” he said in a prepared statement. “But talk is cheap; ensuring we have the most skilled workforce in the world is not. Unfortunately, to date the president’s agencies have either called for deep cuts to workforce programs, or they have refused to spend the training resources Congress has already given to them. Perhaps (the State of the Union) signals a shift. We hope so. The nation’s workers and businesses will be watching to see if the president follows through.”
When Trump was elected, community college leaders fretted that they would no longer have a seat at the table when higher education policy is hashed out in the halls of Washington. Certainly their influence has receded under Trump, but opportunities to influence policymakers remain.
Walter Bumphus, AACC president, last year was named to the President's Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. He is one of two educators on the 23-member panel; The other is Mark B. Rosenberg, president of Florida International University and a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Public and Land- Grant Universities.
“Our advocates in Washington have quite a task ahead to inform the administration about what our colleges do for students and for the country,” Boggs said.
“The Trump administration is very interested in apprenticeships, and many community colleges host these programs. Dr. Bumphus was appointed to a Department of Labor Task Force on the expansion of apprenticeships in November, so there is an avenue to provide information to the administration.”Download PDF