Donald Trump Doesn't Understand Community Colleges

In a speech on Thursday, he revealed he doesn't appreciate the vital role they play in the country's education system and economy.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on his infrastructure initiative in Richfield, Ohio. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

During a speech on Thursday, President Trump revealed a striking ignorance of one of the pillars of his country’s educational system. In the course of promoting his infrastructure plan, he, a bit perplexingly, dismissed the country’s community colleges, suggesting he doesn’t know what purpose they serve. “We do not know what a ‘community college’ means,” he told the crowd in an Ohio training facility for construction apprentices, moments after expressing nostalgia for the vocational schools that flourished when he was growing up—schools that offered hands-on training in fields such as welding and cosmetology.

He seemed to have a better grasp on these latter schools, analogizing them to the apprenticeship programs he was promoting in his effort to create 400,000 high-paying infrastructure jobs. The implication, as he brushed aside one form of higher education and lauded another, was that he’d like to resuscitate short-term training opportunities and phase out community colleges in the name of workforce development.

One of Trump’s stated goals is to ensure that every American knows “the dignity of work, the pride of a paycheck, and the satisfaction of a job well done”—but he seems to be unaware of the vital role that community colleges play in realizing that vision. As Jeffrey Selingo wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, the fastest-growing jobs in the United States require candidates to have training and education beyond high school, and community colleges, which typically offer associate’s degrees, will be key to filling those openings.

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.”

And even though the term vocational education isn’t used today as often as it was in the 20th century, that doesn’t mean that community colleges have crowded out such training opportunities. In fact, they’ve seen a resurgence in recent years. The difference is primarily semantic: Nowadays,  such training is typically described as “career and technical education”—the result of a rebranding effort aimed in part to counter vocational schools’ (somewhat earned) reputation for tracking disadvantaged Americans into low-wage jobs.

The incorrect assumption that Trump made in his speech on Thursday was that community colleges and vocational schools haven’t been able to and can’t exist alongside each other—a misunderstanding that further underappreciates an already underappreciated component of American education.