When someone says, “I want to go to college,” a traditional four-year college or university often comes to mind.
Many don’t think of community colleges as an option, even though they are the single largest sector of the U.S. higher education system, enrolling nearly half of all undergraduates each year.
Community colleges provide opportunity and access to millions of students, helping them prepare for a degree at a four-year institution, obtain an associate’s degree, or retrain and retool for the 21st century global economy.
On March 18, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met with student leaders from the American Student Association of Community Colleges to discuss the importance of community colleges. The student leaders were in Wastington for their annual national Student Advocacy Conference.
The conversation focused on ensuring high-quality instruction, accrediting certification and degree programs, and improving support for community college transition programs.
“I was not confident that I could succeed at a four-year university, so I went with Victor Valley Community College. While I was there I stumbled upon this program for first-generation students, [the] Puente program,” said Amanda, one of the students at the discussion. “A lot of these opportunities that change our lives happen by chance.”
Puente is designed to assist first-generation students with navigating the college process. It’s just one of the many programs offered at community colleges across the country that help students who are looking to succeed in higher education.
Secretary Duncan also heard from other students who have benefited from the community college experience.
Sandeep Singh, a psychology major at Sacramento City College, told Duncan that he initially struggled when making the transition from high school to higher education, since the system was so different from the one in his native Fiji.
Amanda Steele, a student at Volunteer State Community College, said she has benefited from a veteran outreach program, which has made her transition from the U.S. Navy to civilian life easier.
The Secretary asked, “All of you represent thousands of students, what are the recurring issues you hear about from your constituencies?”
The students in attendance responded by saying that graduate requirements tend not to align with the transfer process within schools, out of state transfers are even more complex and enrollment issues and lack of classes always seem to push back transfer deadlines.
Mark Mitsui, Deputy Assistant Secretary for community colleges at the Department of Education closed the meeting by saying, “These systematic issues show that the community college systems that we need to, now more than ever, work with students on campus to create locally driven solutions aided by a national dialogue.”
This discussion is part of the ongoing Student Voices Series, where students engage with the Secretary of Education and senior staff to solicit and help develop recommendations on current programs and future policies.
Sam Ryan is special assistant and youth liaison at the U.S. Department of Education