Community colleges are not just a substantial part of the future of American education—they are also a substantial part of its present. More than 40 percent of the country’s undergraduates are currently enrolled in community colleges, according to the College Board, the higher-education research firm and test administrator. Preliminary federal data suggest that roughly 9 million undergraduates were enrolled in community colleges in the 2015-2016 school year. And with their low tuition (typically costing less than what federal Pell grants provide) and practice of letting in all applicants, community colleges serve as a pathway to the middle class for low-income and first-generation students. Further, one in three community-college students transfers to a bachelor’s-granting institution within six years.
Enrolling in a community college certainly doesn’t guarantee a steady, well paid job. As my colleague Ann Hulbert has pointed out, too many community-college students never earn a degree. But that’s largely because two-year institutions serve a disproportionate percentage of students whose life circumstances—many have families to support and are working full-time jobs to pay their bills—make completing a degree particularly difficult. (Community colleges are acutely aware of this challenge and have implemented programs to better support such students; many are even evolving from learning and training institutions into holistic support systems, establishing food pantries on campus and offering subsidized daycare.)
On Thursday, Trump said the vocational schools of yore “were not called community colleges, because I don’t know what that means.” The president was right that there’s a difference between vocational schools and community colleges: Historically, the former were offered at the secondary level and seen as an alternative to a college degree, designed to prepare students for careers in industries like manufacturing. The latter took a broader approach, giving students skills that might apply across industries. Indeed, the term community college is unambiguous. As one administrator of a community college in Oregon told my colleague James Fallows back in 2015, “When we say we are a ‘community college,’ we really mean that we are for and of this community.” Replacing community colleges with vocational schools would mean doing away with institutions that have given millions of Americans the practical skills, liberal-arts background, and diploma that are considered prerequisites for a growing number of jobs—and shepherded millions of others to four-year institutions.
What’s more, Trump’s insinuation that the aims of vocational training and community colleges are mutually exclusive signals a misinterpretation of the latter’s role in today’s workforce-development initiatives; community colleges also help keep local and regional economic engines running. Community colleges were established after World War II to churn out qualified workers—a duty they’ve continued to fulfill. As Selingo noted, “Some 34 percent of the roughly $114 billion the federal government spends annually on workforce development and education goes to higher education, with much of it flowing to two-year colleges.”