Celebrating Community College Month
Community colleges are crucial for personal socio-economic growth as well as the economic health of the region. Broadly speaking, community colleges young students prepare for further study, provide vocational training, and offer workforce training (and do so at affordable prices). We tend sometimes to lose sight of all that a community college brings to its region and how it fits in the educational landscape.
Higher education has always had a tension between providing a private good for an individual that allows them to increase their professional and social capital and a public good for society by providing the practical education needed for a highly employed workforce. It is worth pointing out that the argument can and has been made that the private and public good are intertwined. The traditional tiered structure places the Research schools at the top, Land-Grant colleges next, followed by Comprehensive Regional State Universities, with Community Colleges as the most recent educational institution (the religious institutions and private liberal arts institutions run in a largely parallel track). While it may appear that each tier was well thought out, the truth is more complex. The schools that make up the tiers all started out with a focus on vocational education and expanded to offer more disciplinary and professional opportunities. Community colleges are the exception.
Even though secondary school students continue to come to community colleges in large numbers to prepare themselves for a four-year degree by taking their transfer degrees locally (and, again, at a greatly reduced cost!), and even though some community colleges have innovative partnerships with four-year schools such as WKCTC’s partnerships with UK Engineering and Murray State University, community colleges continue to have a strong vocational element. The community college is focused on the entire community. We serve the recent secondary school student and the working adult. Nearly half of our students at WKCTC are over the age of 24. Although the great majority of our adult students come to us to learn a particular trade, a good number come to get back on track for a four-year degree and beyond.
Some states have allowed community colleges the opportunity to offer a limited number of four-year degrees, but community colleges are still seen as the place for vocational education and the four-years as the place for a liberal arts or professional degree. The liberal arts and vocational education are seen as two separate pursuits and societal goods. Our education system and public policy validates this schism by the rewards that accrue to each type of education. Our contemporary term “liberal arts” is often confusing but it can be traced back to a separation of the arts into the liberal arts, mechanical arts, and art. Liberal Arts originally meant those arts having to do with the education necessary for free citizens to be responsible members of society; the mechanical arts loosely translate to what we might call vocational; and art was reserved for what we might call Fine Arts (there has been a lot of movement among the terms and quarrels over definitions over the last couple of centuries). In the Western English-speaking world, two important movements in the late 19th century tried to bring the two together. William Morris urged the coming together of fine arts and mechanical arts in the Arts and Crafts movement by asking that as much attention be paid to the construction of the thing as the ornamentation, that the two not be separated. Robert Owen created communities that would allow workers ample time to pursue knowledge for its own sake as well as for practical purposes. Morris and Owen both saw the importance of blurring the lines between all sorts of learning and sought to lessen the distinction between the arts as well as between private and public good.
Just as there is not a sharp distinction between private and public good, there is increasingly not a sharp distinction between vocational and liberal studies. Industry leaders have for years asked for employees who have a broad set of skills that prepare them for the task at hand as well as more creative problem-solving skills and strong communication skills; in other words, they want vocational and liberal combined. WKCTC faculty have always engaged the whole person in their classes, and have been engaged in the last few years in a bold initiative to bring together the vocational and the liberal. All our programs, from Accounting to Welding, require that our students engage in critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration.
Much to the chagrin of futurists we are not all of us knowledge workers. Many parts of the country (and abroad) still see the world of work in terms of primary and secondary sectors. Jobs in the primary sector are high-paying and high-status with security, good working conditions and opportunities for promotion; jobs in the secondary sector are poorly paid and of low-status with little security, poor working conditions, and not much in the way of training opportunities. The community college creates pathways to the primary sector for those still in school and those who find themselves in secondary sector jobs. Tomorrow’s workforce will need the combination more strongly and we at WKCTC continue to move in that direction as we expand offerings and access while continuing to serve the entire community.
Dr. Uppinder Mehan is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at West Kentucky Community and Technical College