Community Colleges: an Underused Resource

OLD habits die hard, especially those linked with our cold-war desire to beat the Russians academically by producing pound-for-pound more first-rate physicists, mathematicians, and engineers.

Yet now that peace has broken out, or broken in upon our cold-war complacencies, it should be clear that what we really need are large-scale, cost-effective programs in our two-year community colleges - far more than the ''stars of tomorrow'' emphasis of our voraciously expensive state universities.

An article in the American Economics Review (June 1995) points out that the labor-market return for two-year colleges is exactly the same (a 10 percent income increase for every 30 college credits earned) as it is for four-year colleges.

So a tax dollar spent at an open-access, low-cost California community college actually produces four times as much economic benefit as a tax dollar spent at the University of California at Berkeley.

Along those same lines, a detailed New York Times article by John Holusha (Aug. 22) pointed out that many more people with education beyond high school are now working on high-tech factory floors - making more money ($42,000 a year at the Allegheny Ludlum steel plant) than baccalaureates with bleak prospects in government service and service industries.

Even on the West Coast, traditionally a haven for baccalaureates and doctorates, this dynamic is seen. Phoenix now effectively lures industry away from regions with a higher proportion of four-year degrees to its higher proportion of people with ''some college,'' produced by the splendid Maricopa County community-college system. That according to a recent Los Angeles Times business section article.

Are two-year community colleges cost-effective in traditional academic terms? Clearly they are, judging from the fact that students transferring from low-cost California community colleges consistently outperform students who start out as entering freshmen in the high-cost University of California and California State University systems. Not surprisingly, the University of Texas Permian Layer campus is devoted exclusively to serving community college transfer students, and similar ''upper division'' schools are planned for Minnesota and other states.

Wouldn't it make more socio-economic sense for us to have all of our high school students plan on earning at least 15 units at a neighborhood open-access, low-cost two-year community college - for their own good and for the good of our peacetime economy? If we do,we'll get what our nation badly needs: an ''everyone's a contributor/everyone's a winner'' internationally competitive, productive society.

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