Community Colleges: Part Of The Solution

Apr 26, 2019 by


If community colleges did not exist, there would be a mad rush to create them.

Collectively, community colleges across Michigan provide quality, affordable access to higher education for learners of all ages and backgrounds. They are the dream makers for people seeking an opportunity to improve their lives.

It was with this strong belief that I read the critical article last week in these pages by Chad Selweski pointing out the flaws of some of our community colleges.

Michigan’s Community Colleges are Failing our Kids

My first reaction was Chad was denigrating the value of Michigan’s community colleges, in yet another knee jerk reaction critiquing our system of public education.

Ideological criticism of public education has become a blood sport in Michigan and across this state and nation. It is no wonder a teacher friend told me she feels, “like the gum on the bottom of your shoe” and in a recent poll points out over 75 percent of teachers would not encourage a family member to enter the teaching profession.

Statue of Liberty

Our system of public education is the true Statue of Liberty of this great nation of ours. There is no other institution that takes the tired, hungry, poor, huddled masses, persons who speak English as a second language, children with disabilities, and give them hope and opportunities.

As someone who’s successful career and life is built in part on the foundation a great education provided by a local community college (Henry Ford College) my first reaction to Chad’s column was a bit of anger. “How dare he take a pot shot at our system of community colleges,” I thought.

Community colleges are a pathway to success for so many first generation college attendees providing a ladder out of poverty and a shot at the middle class, the American Dream!

Yet, while I can quibble with the source of the statistics used in his article the basic premise and conclusion of the article is not entirely wrong.

We must do better educating more and more of our students, be that at the pre-K-12 level, community college, or our four year educational institutions. Our collective future depends on the quality of the education being offered today.


Mike Hansen, the long time leader of the Michigan Community College Association ( points out, “Using standard graduation rates as a measure of community college performance is a lack of understanding of the community college student population. The average age is 26, 70% attend part-time, the majority work in addition to school, and more than half indicate their goal is to transfer, not earn a degree.

According to the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), the 6 year success rates (which includes transfer) is 44% and increasing every year”. He continues, “many enroll in their local community college to pick up a particular skill with a class or two, are there for a short-term certificate with no intent to “graduate.”

Clearly, neither the individual or the community college should be considered a “failure” understanding this background.

How Do We Measure Success?

Statistics can tell whatever story you desire.

Governor Snyder, who (like thousands of others attending community colleges across Michigan) started his postsecondary career by taking classes at a community college, and then transferred those credits to the University of Michigan where he graduated with a degree in accounting, law and an MBA. It would be hard to argue Governor Snyder was not a “success”, yet since he never “graduated” from the community college, he was recorded as a failure for the community college under a graduation rate metric.

I too, began my career at a community college, never graduated before transferring to MSU, and earned my bachelors degree and going on to earn a graduate degree at WSU. My success is built on this foundation.

Pointing Fingers Is Easy

The first part of problem solving is problem identification. I concur with Chad our “success” rate at all  levels of education needs to improve.

Yet when I read articles taking shots at public education I fear the typical ideological response in Lansing and Washington DC will be like the old Miller Lite Commercial with those on the left yelling: “Taste Great” (need more money) while those on the right will scream – “Less filling!” (no new resources). The fact is we need new investment and in many cases we need to reform and reinvent education as well.

State Disinvests In Education

Thirty years ago, on average, Michigan’s community colleges received nearly 50 percent of their funding from state appropriations and another 25 percent each from property taxes and tuition. Today, the state’s contribution is less than half that –20 percent–  while the other 80 percent is derived from property taxes and tuition.

Another reason for investing in our community colleges is how responsive they are to local needs by providing re-education for laid-off workers. These colleges are also agile in providing classes on demand by employers.

It has been argued that our country’s university system stands on tradition. Change for it is like turning an ocean liner. In contrast, community colleges respond like a speedboat in providing education to meet immediate community and business needs.

Invest In Our Collective Future

We are living in a disruptive, hyper-competitive, technological-driven, global economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly. We need to be preparing more and more of our citizens to be life long learners to be able to collaborate and compete on the global stage.

We need to do more than critique community colleges; we need to understand the head winds they face and be willing to invest in our collective future.

It would be instructive that we lay out not just the problem but offer some solutions to the problems. When we do not invest in the supports students need to be successful such as: financial aid, counseling and career guidance while accepting students not academically prepared for the higher education it should come as no surprise we see low completion rates.

We need a bi-partisan commitment for both more funding for schools including support services, together with a significant redesign of K-16 education system in Michigan.

Governor Whitmer Stands Up For Education

We can be grateful that Governor Whitmer has proposed $507 million more for K-12 in her first budget which appears to have legislative support across the political aisle.

It is also a positive sign that the business community is rallying behind the governor’s signature goals to increase the number of working age adults with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 60% by 2030, from 45% now.

Former Lt. Governor Brian Calley, now president of of the Michigan Small Business Association and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Rich Studley, offered full throttled support for the governor’s education and workforce preparedness initiatives known as Michigan Reconnect and Michigan Opportunity Scholarship. Brian Calley took it a step further praising Whitmer’s “visionary leadership.”

It is great to see a bipartisan focus on investing in education.

Keeping Learning At The Center

Tim Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College, didn’t pull any punches offering, “We have to understand the very nature of work is undergoing radical transformation. Expecting that everyone should attend college as though it is an express train to completion is unrealistic and may be unwise Today’s learners will be required to learn and obtain credentials throughout their lives. It may be a class, a badge, a certificate, a degree or an as yet, unnamed credential. We must collectively develop credentials that provide evidence of competencies, for competencies are the new currency. While traditional degrees and certificates are still necessary in this arena, they are no longer sufficient for a transforming economy. Community colleges are well positioned to serve as social, economic and talent development agencies. Measuring success in these missions will go well beyond cost, retention and traditional graduation. I truly believe we are the innovation sector for the future.”

In today’s world, we need creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, educational leaders that understand we must prepare students for their future and not our past.

Under President Nelson’s leadership he has guided NMC through a transition from the traditional time based, place based, and knowledge transfer system, to a community college that is focused on competency based, content based knowledge application in pursuit of social, economic, and talent development. He has added value to his students and his community. He is thinking globally and broadly while acting locally.

Tim Nelson

We cannot and will not compete with developing nations on low-wage and low-skilled jobs. Our future depends on skilled, knowledgeable, and flexible workers who can pivot rapidly, collaborate with and stay ahead of our global competitors. An important part of that workforce is being prepared today at a community college near you.

We need to stop pretending to fix problems facing our state and nation. If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it will not keep the rain out.

The individual, family, city, state and nation that invests in lifelong learning will succeed as the 21st unfolds. Those that don’t will fall behind.

Quality education and workforce preparedness are pillars of the business and education community to make Michigan the greatest place in the world to live, work, play and raise a family.

Pointing out problems facing our community colleges is fair game. The question remains will we work together forming a sustainable shared vision and common agenda to fix what can and must be improved?

To paraphrase, President Bill Clinton, “There is nothing so wrong with our community colleges that cannot be cured with what is right with our community colleges.”

Community colleges across Michigan are sails, not anchors, that must be supported to help propel our great state forward.

Source: Community Colleges: Part Of The Solution | Dome Magazine

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