President Barack Obama’s latest education initiative is #FreeCommunityCollege for American students, but it brings up the question, will it make a concrete impact on the higher education landscape? At the Brookings Institution, Maryland community college president DeRionne Pollard spoke glowingly of the value of community colleges in America. Pollard is in charge of Montgomery College, a suburban community college that serves one of the richer counties in the D.C. metropolitan area.
“We are, in fact, doing the heavy lifting of higher education,” Pollard pointed out. “Almost half of undergraduates in this country have attended community colleges.”
At Montgomery College, Pollard boasted, “We have over 130 programs of study…we have communities of high wealth and high poverty” and “all twenty six high schools in Montgomery County [Maryland] have students at Montgomery College.” The average age of her students is twenty-eight and some senior citizens recently graduated from Montgomery College as well.
“It’s in vogue to talk about work development,” Pollard said, “[But for] over a hundred years, community colleges have been doing workforce development.”
Nevertheless, she argued that community colleges and colleges in general need to reform and “redesign ourselves.” “We’re speaking a lot to the ‘haves,’” she claimed, adding that “We’re not speaking a lot to the ‘have-nots.’” She continued, “We don’t have the luxury right now for waiting for everyone to get to that point,” and must educate people left out of the workforce. Thus she wants to reach out to “folks getting out of the prison system” and put them to work.
Pollard admitted, “Community colleges have not done a good job” at explaining their effectiveness and value to the community and economy. “This idea that you go to college to earn an esoteric degree that has no relevancy or currency in the workforce I think is an old trope [and] we have to find a different way of thinking about it,” the former English teacher noted.
In her own words, “You have to get a job to pay for the tofu,” and “you have to have a job that is going to be sustainable.” A “sustainable” job means it has “relevancy, currency and has connections to the workforce in the community you live in.”
She suggested that not everyone needs to go to a “prestigious” four-year college, but instead, “you can come to a prestigious community college locally to get a curriculum that will allow you to get a job, to go debt free.”