Life-skill learning at the local level

Marie Service looks too young to be a mother, but she has a six-month-old baby and no husband. With the help of state grants, she's starting a two-year program at Bronx Community College (BCC) to become a registered nurse. In three months her child will be old enough to attend day care at the college. Three years after Allison Lisle arrived in the United States from Jamaica she was told that her job as a catalog proofreader for JC Penney was to be phased out in one year. She spent that year studying accounting part time at the community college while continuing to work. She hopes to study full time this year and finish a two-year degree by taking extra courses.

Lourd Thomas complains that the music offered by the campus radio station at Bronx Community College isn't diverse enough.

``It's all street music - you know, rap stuff,'' he explains. The budding deejay (also from Jamaica) plans to transfer to a four-year college to follow his interest in communications.

For these plucky go-getters, Bronx Community College offers an opportunity to pursue long-term goals or simply train for a decent job. It may sound overly optimistic for the college to advertise itself as the ``Gateway to Success,'' but the students seem to relish the chance to study there.

``The teaching in business is first class,'' says Kenol Fontes, who is studying accounting. Ms. Lisle says her accounting professor is ``very good. He makes you understand.''

In the US, 1,200 community, technical, and junior colleges enrolled 5 million students last year. Forty percent of all students at US colleges are attending one of these institutions, according to Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

``The community college is one of the most remarkable developments in educational history,'' Dr. Boyer says, ``but most people do not understand the scope and significance of this movement.'' The hallmark of a two-year college is flexibility. ``It's convenient, close by, low cost, and also can adjust quickly to changing needs,'' he says.

In recent years, for example, community colleges have been strengthening their job training programs, forming partnerships with local businesses, and creating short-term programs for those in the work force who want to upgrade their skills but don't have time to take full-length courses.

The focus on teaching practical, work-related skills is not new but is increasing as communities strive to develop economically. The job-skills emphasis also makes sense for the students, many of whom are among the most disadvantaged in higher education.

While one-third of the 6,000 students at BCC did not finish high school and are earning General Educational Development diplomas, the college no longer has the open admissions policy it had in the 1970s. Under open admissions, which basically welcomed anyone who wanted to attend the college, enrollment peaked at around 9,000.

BCC is working to avoid the problems that arise from not adequately assessing student needs, dramatized in the recent TV documentary, ``Open Admissions.''

``The choice to come here represents a tremendous amount of motivation,'' says Carl Polowczyk, dean of academic affairs. The obstacles many students face include poverty, language barriers, and teen parenthood.

The majority of students at Bronx Community College are female. Forty-eight percent are Hispanic, and 44 percent are black. The college also caters to the needs of the significant Korean population in the Bronx. About 10 percent of the students enroll in English-as-a-second-language courses. These groups are precisely the ones that will make up a growing part of the work force.

But as community colleges adapt to offer the specific training that is needed for good jobs, Boyer worries that the core curriculum is being neglected.

``The need for a strong base of liberal learning is all the more critical'' amid the increasing commitment to job training, he says. The improvement of general education is the top recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, which he chaired. He also stresses the need for literacy, including math as well as language skills.

Early dubbed ``the people's colleges,'' community colleges cater to a broader range of the population than any other sector of higher education.

Now these schools are exploring new ways to meet educational needs. One recent idea is a ``two plus two'' program that integrates the last two years of high school study with a two-year degree program. The purpose is to encourage students who would otherwise enter the work force without any higher education to get an associate degree.

Community colleges already play a vital role with older students. The average age of the students at BCC, for example, is 27.

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