CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For generations, community colleges of America were seen as second-class members of the higher education community, a place where ill-prepared and marginal high school graduates should go. The first to be established was Joliet Junior College in Illinois in 1901.
Too many traditional academicians from prestigious colleges and universities did not see these students as academically suited for their tradition-bound campuses, or as likely candidates for graduate and professional degrees like the sciences, law and medicine.
However, more and more two-year college students showed their collective might as the heart of the nation's working force, as a segment of education to be reckoned with across the country. Amazingly, community colleges now serve nearly half of the undergraduates in the United States and four-year schools count on them for transfers, a key part of their base and stability.
An imposing number of community college students are transferring to four-year colleges, meeting with impressive success in classrooms and laboratories. Some surpass their fellow students who went to four-year institutions for the full four years of study.
The community college stigma was lifting in the 1990s and we witnessed a spiraling number of successful transfer students who earned baccalaureate degrees in a wide and demanding range of disciplines, in areas of societal high need.
In the past five years, the perceived value of a degree from a two-year college has soared, as leaders from business, industry and government lamented the fact that there were not enough highly skilled and trained individuals to fill needed and well-paying jobs. America asked for immediate assistance as the country suffered paralyzing unemployment and demands for a new breed of employees and leaders.
Suffering from a stagnant and diminished economy, dim prospects for an early recovery, and millions of jobs that could not be filled with the right men and women, President Obama turned to the community colleges for accelerated relief, for quantifiable results and workable educational programs.
He asked two-year colleges to work directly with the private sector to tailor education for immediate job needs; in return, the federal government and the private sector delivered increases in federal and private dollars to advance the cause.
Suddenly, the tables were turned in an unprecedented way: Community colleges bathed in the newfound attention, while their four-year brethren were targeted by a chorus of critics who questioned their fundamental value to the economy and the future.