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Employment, Economic Gain, and Affordability: The Triple Benefits of Community College

This op-ed piece was originally published in the Sunday, May 13, 2012, edition of the Observer-Dispatch.

By Randall J. VanWagoner, Ph.D.
President, Mohawk Valley Community College

Have you heard the media mantra about college graduates? “Jobless, underemployed and deep in debt.” Do you know any young people or adults who ask “Why bother?” when thinking about college? These concerns are significant, timely, and worth more thoughtful consideration.

Reports questioning the value proposition of higher education hit the news in April, right when many families were deep in thought about college decisions. Researchers from Northeastern University, Drexel University, and the Economic Policy Institute, armed with data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor, illustrated that 53.6 percent of bachelor’s degree holders younger than 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years.

Elements of this story line play out locally, too, with more than 5,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Oneida and Herkimer counties out of work and not in school. While the statistics can be disheartening, a narrow focus on the unemployment rate fails to tell the whole story. The broader college story is altogether different and much more encouraging, especially for community college graduates. More than ever our graduates have three big things going for them: They have access to benefits not available to people who lack college; they are a boon to our local economy; and know it or not they are leading the fight for affordable, high-quality education.

I got an e-mail last week from a member of our Class of 2011 who just finished her first year as a transfer art student at Syracuse University: “SU’s illustration program is booming, challenging, and produces a lot of artists who rise to the top of the industry. Coming from MVCC, I had no trouble in any of my SU classes and quickly became one of the top-performing students.” We hear this a lot. And we’re about to hear more of it as we make ready to graduate the largest class in our 66-year history, with 1,110 candidates to walk across the Commencement stage on Friday.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that on average, associate degree holders earn $7,020 more per year than people with just a high school diploma. And we know local employers are counting on our newly minted graduates to be the nucleus of a new workforce with the power to launch, accelerate, and sustain economic recovery in our region. Two of our region’s key economic problems—low household incomes and an under-educated workforce—are exactly the kinds of problems our graduates help solve.

Whenever I talk to area employers, I hear about “skill gaps” between employers’ needs and local candidates’ skills. In dry statistical terms this is represented by the lag between college attainment among adults in Oneida County (21 percent with a bachelor’s degree) compared to the average across New York State (31 percent). In real-world terms it means that employers are looking for qualified workers locally, but not finding them.

Health care, cybersecurity, computer software, engineering, aircraft maintenance, nanotechnology, marketing, and other fields are thriving in a 90-mile radius of our area and many employers are poised to  accelerate these trends locally—if they can get more, better-qualified workers. The fact is not that there are no jobs, it is that these jobs require specific skills, which match the skills taught in community college degree and certificate programs. Sending 1,110 more qualified people on to the workforce or transfer schools is a significant difference-maker.

The community college movement has grown up around the goal of providing high-quality, comprehensive programs that help young people and adults of all ages develop skills for the workplace. Whether starting college as teens or adults, students can find their career of choice and the necessary skills to make that career possible. Our transfer programs continue to expand via creation of new transfer arrangements with institutions such as Cornell, Utica College, Keuka, and Syracuse; as well as expanding on long-established agreements such as in engineering with Clarkson and RPI. And in areas like health care, technology, and trades, community colleges continue to hone our edge for putting qualified, turnkey workers directly into the workforce.

Community college faculty like MVCC’s have the connections and know-how to give students real-world experience as part of their college experience. In some industries this can lead students directly from the classroom to the workplace. This point was driven home a couple weeks ago, when a participant at our alumni reunion spoke up to share his story. After being laid off as an adult, he retrained as an electrical technician at MVCC and went on to a high-paying job in the nanotech field. His employer actually sent him to our reunion for the express purpose of asking us to send more work-ready people to their door.

Another door we open is that of affordability. Community college students are not magically immune to college cost or loan debt, but they do enjoy financial advantages over their peers at public and private four-year institutions. MVCC has the sixth-lowest tuition of any public college in New York State, at $3,480 per year for in-state students; every college that is more affordable than MVCC is also one of New York’s 30 community colleges. Degree programs are fully eligible for financial aid, grants, and other forms of direct student support. The colleges themselves go to great lengths to help students close gaps between wishing for college and affording it.

Our financial aid staff help connect more than 5,000 students annually with aid, and the non-profit MVCC Foundation awards more than 350 direct scholarships every year. One of the major objectives of the Challenge and Opportunity major gifts campaign is to extend this benefit even further, expanding the Presidential Scholarship for Oneida County students in the top 10 percent of their class. Our overall objective is to make sure that college education can be provided to everyone who stands to benefit—without derailing students’ movement toward financial independence and prosperity.

These are some of the many ways that community colleges fulfill their unique roles. Our daily work and our evolution give the lie to assertions that college education has lost its value. We are at the core of the education system, connecting school districts and universities, and providing employers with well-trained employees. We partner with countless non-profits and social service agencies to carry out a very important mission to promote student success and community involvement. And this Friday, we will launch hundreds of ambassadors into a brighter future for themselves—and for our entire community. I am excited and confident about the paths that our graduates will forge as they take advantage of the opportunity of education.