By Larisa J. Pfeiffer
In 1901 the nation’s first two-year college, Joliet Junior College, was established through a shared vision to create a path to higher education for all citizens, which differentiated it from the more elitist patriarchal institutions designed for the upper-class only.
In order to create a higher education space for all people, community colleges established themselves on the core beliefs that higher education should be accessible to every citizen, regardless of geography and socioeconomic status, and likewise it should be affordable so that learning remained within the reach of all people to create upward mobility. The tenets of access, affordability, and quality remain in place today: A true American College.
The constant commitment to elevating our humanity is an outcome of training the mind to think. Learning intentionally for the betterment of ourselves and our communities is a uniquely human endeavor. I discovered this as a community college student myself; I learned more in my first 60 credits about the world around me and myself than I have learned through my now advanced degrees. An associate degree teaches you a little about a lot of things; it is a kaleidoscope of knowledge that we recognize as a gift afterwards. We learn a lot about who we are as a human, student, and citizen in those early learning years of higher education, provided we are in the right environment.
However, in this writer’s opinion – the efforts of our federal government to grow an educated citizenry by flooding the market with easy to obtain loans intrinsically and deviously changed the higher education business model, moving away from rigorous learning and into football stadiums. Marketing social experiences became the new focus needed to attract tuition dollars, and student debt skyrocketed. We have now entered a space where a college degree is the new normal, and yet employers don’t see the correlation of ability as it relates to student debt.
In the face of the controversy around the value of a degree, I stand by the individual, community, and state return on investment in community colleges. I witness daily the commitment to an academic focus and the dedicated professional support provided to each student. So valued is the associate degree that at the local level some high demand careers that require bachelor’s degrees are now being offered at two-year institutions. Just take a moment and think about that dichotomy.
The mission of a community college defines its purpose by the students it serves and what it intends to accomplish. Leaders and educators who commit their professional careers to this enterprise understand there is a moral obligation to ensure community colleges remain in place; that we have to create an affordable quality educational opportunity for all people to access the middle class and beyond. We don’t have Greek life or football stadiums, but we create space for social justice and the safety to discover individual abilities and interests while growing the ability to think critically and be well informed, honoring the expectation of Juliet Junior College all those years ago.