Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist
The next new thing: focusing on community colleges
Community colleges are the heavy tanks in the battle to retrain and educate Americans for a 21st-century economy.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Can everyone stop beating up President Obama over our double-digit unemployment rate?
Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus piled on, pointing out that the unemployment rate for African Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 is nearly 50 percent.
I'm not against another round of economic stimulus despite its breathtaking price tag for the next generation. But the nagging unemployment rate is a battle best fought with education. When America finds its footing again, everyone ought to be prepared.
I see community colleges as the heavy tanks in that necessary battle. These institutions remain within financial reach, while four-year colleges have raised tuition beyond what most working-class and even some middle-class families can bear. In addition, community colleges have an open door and community-inspired mission that place them on the front line of education and job training.
It helps that Obama, calling community colleges America's most underappreciated asset, recently laid down a challenge: everyone commit to a year of college or job training. The president's request is backed handsomely by the 10-year, $12 billion American Graduation Initiative.
This is a reinvestment act I can buy into 100 percent. In the future, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are expected to grow at twice the rate of jobs that don't require college.
Not since President Truman's Commission on Higher Education doubled the number of community colleges has the nation deigned to give so much attention, and commensurate resources, to community colleges.
Obama would like to see our country have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. I'm not so much into the competitive thing. I just believe that higher education does more to tap our collective potential and provide more economic security than any social program ever could.
Gov. Chris Gregoire also gets it. Of the many places she wielded the ax to achieve $1.6 billion in cuts to the 2010 budget, community colleges escaped the sharpest blows. Indeed, one of the rare increases in the budget is in the Worker Retraining Program. Good. Its enrollment has doubled and funding is exhausted.
I'm losing patience with the not-everyone-needs-to-go-to-college crowd. They're stuck in a past where a high-school graduate, usually male, could get a job at the factory and support a stay-home wife and family. This outdated notion ought to be among the many casualties of a changing economy.
There is no going back to the old way of doing things. Such shifts have been made before. Higher education shifted from educating people for an agrarian economy to the industrial age. Now it must broaden education from the technology and information age to encompass what's next.
The next new thing is green jobs. Those who seek to lay down new electrical lines, put up transmitters or create technology for wind turbines, solar panels and the like may not need a four-year degree — some will, some won't — but they will need more than a passing familiarity with the principles of mathematics, engineering and science. Hence, higher education.
One of the biggest promoters of higher education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is investing half a billion dollars in expanding opportunities at the community colleges for the working poor. The result is a new definition of college that understands that not even evening and online classes completely address challenges faced by people who work, raise families and attend school.
Yes, President Obama must answer for our stubborn unemployment rate and the sluggishness of his gilded Wall Street friends to make loans and jobs. Ultimately, the solution depends on how quickly we learn the next new skill and craft an industry out of it. This is the battle for opportunity; community colleges lead the way.
Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
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