How Community Colleges Can Help to Rebuild America’s Middle Class

Written by Joe May, President, Dallas County (TX) Community College District

As new Education Secretary John King prepares to visit Milwaukee to give his first commencement address at a community college next week, he is well aware of the challenges facing our country, ones that start in the classroom but also extend into the workplace, where employee needs must be better meshed with employer demands.

There’s no more vexing issue to be solved than the skills match between unemployed and underemployed individuals and the skill set needed in today’s job market.. In the community college sector, we believe that great moments can be born from great challenges. That’s why we stand ready to work in partnership with Secretary King and Congress to serve as America’s 21st-century skills hubs and, in the process, to help to rebuild America’s middle class.

Indeed, community colleges are in the right place at the right time to pivot and deliver on the emerging needs of students and employers in the new skills economy. And we should seize on that advantage.

Certainly the backdrop for this necessary seizure is bleak. The middle-skills gap is only getting worse – and employers are at least 5 million people short in terms of workers today who have at least some post-secondary education. Yet alarmingly the

All of these forces are coalescing to make this a potential defining moment for community colleges. With thoughtful leadership and smart, long-term strategies, community colleges can take advantage of our strengths, starting with our people. Not only do community colleges possess dedicated staffs with deep expertise in serving those who are looking to advance their educations, we have an alumni base that dwarfs any leading college or group of colleges.

Thanks to our rich history of deep local ties, community colleges have built a portfolio of countless local partnerships with employers and 4-year colleges across the country and, in the process, immeasurable goodwill.

Now more than ever, community colleges should leverage these advantages. After all, we are at the epicenter of a resurgent movement to empower second-chance learners with confident and creditable pathways to career and economic mobility. We consistently deliver tangible outcomes and help level the playing field of opportunity and income inequality.

We must face facts. Not only does our nation have a “middle skills crisis,” but 7,000 students are dropping out of high school every day despite a growing emphasis on both career and college readiness. President Obama has called the economic challenges leading to income inequality the “defining challenge of our time, one that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”

The vast majority of jobs in the future will require more than a high school degree – and the growth of the number of students graduating college is tapering off – but the relationship between some type of post-secondary credential, such as an associate degree, and income has never been more pronounced.

Skills are becoming a new type of currency. They will be measured in a more exacting way than ever before as employers are getting highly analytical in measuring a candidate’s credentials. Those who have the right skills and competencies will do better than those without. These greater demands being pushed on candidates by employers, powered by more sophisticated use of analytical solutions, will require candidates to up their game.

Community colleges are perfectly positioned to enable next generation skills-hubs focused on academic achievement and career relevance. These efforts can and should be in lock-step with national and local public and private sector partners clustered around our thousands of campuses around the country.