Innovation and Community Colleges - The Overlooked National AssetThroughout his administration, President Obama has made higher education a priority. As far back as 2009, Obama lamented America’s nearly 40 percent college dropout rate. More recently, the president called a college degree “an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”
I don’t doubt that the president is entirely correct with his prognosis of our dire higher education graduation rate. What concerns me is whether he is going about solving this problem in the right way. In other words, if the unemployment rate among new graduates is 8.9%, is the problem really that not enough Americans are getting college degrees?
Representing more than 2,200 innovation-driven companies, I often hear CEOs lament they can’t find the skilled people to hire. Their reason is not that there aren’t enough college-educated applicants. Rather, it’s because the skills students learn at most four-year institutions are not applicable for their innovation-centric companies.
Too often four-year colleges and universities produce degrees that have little real-world value and do not match the skills required by American employers. While degrees in the liberal arts (humanities, anthropology, psychology, etc.) represent interesting, if not difficult, pursuits, they are often not useful in getting jobs. And I say this is as pysch major!
The Georgetown Center released a series of relevant reports on this issue. The study, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018,” found that college degrees often do not match available jobs. The report argues that students should align their postsecondary educational choices with available careers. But many four-year institutions require a base of education that covers everything from literature to biology to history, which pushes the length of one’s college career beyond what they need for a job.
Don’t get me wrong. I respect a well-rounded education. But just because someone graduates with a degree from a four-year institution doesn’t automatically mean that they are “educated.” As my dentist told me recently, every winter break he is swamped by college freshmen returning home from their four-year schools with multiple cavities as they fall prey to the carbs and sugars from excessive alcohol and junk food, and forsake basic dental hygiene. The four-year, away-from-home-for-the-first-time college experience is quite different than the experience at a local community college.
And while four-year colleges might dominate the discussions of “college” in America, for millions of Americans, community colleges provide real, practical training.. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, whose data is from 2005, some 6.5 million students took credit at community colleges. Most post-high-school education for blacks and Hispanics is at the community college level. Some two-thirds of community college students attend part-time and the average age is 29.
Yet we hear little from the media or government about the importance, innovation and value coming from these schools. I recently participated in a Florida conference with some 300 leaders from community colleges where we discussed the most innovative community college programs and ideas. There I learned from Houston Community College’s Chancellor Mary Spangler about innovative programs in such areas as tele-medicine, STEM education and learning via mobile telephone. I heard about a community college in Kansas graduating airplane mechanics (much in demand these days) and about programs which can fill the gap between the open jobs and the willing job seekers.
I left that conference convinced that we need a national change in mind set. We need a vision for employment and innovation where we elevate the skilled, the creative and the willing and we de-emphasize the expensive four-year degree. In other words, let’s recognize that our nation’s place in the world was earned by our parents and their grandparents, most of whom did not have four-year degrees.
This is not to deemphasize the importance of higher education. Rather, it’s to argue that the four-year college/university industry is failing to prepare its students for the needs of 21st Century workforce. Not only is the education provided substandard, students leave with a mountain of debt. According to College Measures, almost 5 percent of students at four-year institutions eventually default on their student loans.
Rather than emphasize the four-year degree as an entitlement, as the president has done, our national goal should be a skilled, hard-working, employable work force meeting our competitive and operational needs. Community colleges are the door to opportunity for millions of Americans and we should be encouraging those programs and schools that train Americans for the jobs of the future.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”