Community colleges’ lost mission

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By Gene McIntyre

There are public education entities that have proven themselves tried and true over the years of Oregon’s statehood, getting underway well over a century ago in 1859.  First and foremost, it has been and remains fundamentally important that our children learn how to read, write and work numbers and the public elementary school, usually grades one through six, has fulfilled the teaching of those basics admirably well.

Before there was a need for higher education at the college and university level, the state’s high schools served to meet society’s higher level education requirements.  However, their role has been seriously eroded in more modern times as they too often successfully serve a smaller percentage of their youth population, that is, in high schools, the gifted athlete and those ready for serous academic pursuits and achievements.  Nowadays they poorly serve that majority of youth who find little to nothing beyond rules and authoritarian conditions in too many high schools, encouraging thereby a huge and disgraceful number to drop out before graduating.

Joliet Junior College of Illinois was established in1901.   The community college did not arrive on the public education scene in Oregon in more than a token appearance until the 1960s when Portland and Southwestern Oregon (Coos Bay) Community Colleges, both being founded in 1961, began to offer the technical-vocational courses of study that the Oregon high schools had generally shied away from but that provided high interest, providing job training skills to those youth who were not jocks or dean’s list candidates.

Of course, as the Oregon community colleges began to mature and expand their offerings, they became a resort for those who thought they might be interested in a baccalaureate degree from a four-year college or university but could not afford the cost of four years away from their home base.  In other words, the community colleges were established so that youth could attain marketable skills and commute to campuses.  They soon outclassed most every public high school.

Of late, however, there are an increasing number of media reports to inform that a small but growing number of community colleges are moving to drop the “community” from their name.  This is happening as more and more often states allow two-year colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees, usually requiring more years of study.  We’re now told that an Oregonian driving through Seattle in the next few months will notice that Seattle Community Colleges are now signed as Seattle Colleges.

As things stand at present, twenty-one states allow the former one-and two-year community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees.  The reasons for the expansion of educational offerings come down to a desire to increase enrollments and upgrade the traditional image of community colleges as a place where students can go if they can’t get admitted anywhere else.  These reasons may have a lot to do, too, with increased money-making, enhanced prestige, and political power-wielding.

As for this writer, open to change when improvement’s promised, the latest trend delivers the message that, when “community” is gone, the former grass roots community colleges will neglect the populations they were created to serve for efforts at elitist status, not to mention added taxes to provide duplication and competition already available at public four-year schools.  Now, then, if it’s the intent of the less-than-stellar Oregon Education Investment Board to bastardize Oregon’s community colleges, then it’s suggested that this group of Gov. John Kitzhaber appointees reform the state’s high schools to resemble what have been the very successful state community colleges.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)

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