Community colleges: America’s economic engines

Duncan talks with students at a roundtable at Cincinnati State

Community colleges are America’s economic engines. They are gateways to middle class jobs, and their open-access, affordable programs hold the key to college access, affordability and completion for millions of students from every walk of life.  This Administration has invested more than $2 billion in community colleges, from TAACCCT grants, to the President’s America’s College Promise proposal, to make two free years of college the norm for every responsible student, as well as the proposed American College Training Fund, to help more workers skill up for high-wage, high-demand careers.

The life-changing potential of a strong community college education was on powerful and moving display at Cincinnati State, where Secretary Arne Duncan and Under Secretary Ted Mitchell visited as part of the Ready for Success bus tour. Among the speakers was Bryan Dell, who for years was a drug addict and dealer, before getting sober and enrolling at Cincinnati State to study social work. He spoke movingly of the turnaround in his life and the deep support from the college staff, credits in large part to Cincinnati State and its Black Male Initiative. “The one thing a person must have to succeed in this is commitment,” he said.

When Bryan arrived on campus a few years ago, he hadn’t been in a classroom since 1979 – the year he graduated from high school.  Since then, it seemed his life had jumped the rails. But Bryan had begun the long journey out of drug and alcohol addiction, and a colleague at the treatment program he was attending recommended he also consider going back to school.  As hard as it was to take that step, once he’d enrolled at Cincinnati State, Bryan never looked back. He was elected president of the Black Male Initiative, was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society, and earned a nearly perfect GPA, graduating cum laude. Armed with his Associate’s degree, Bryan transferred Northern Kentucky University – again earning top marks, and securing a Bachelor’s degree.  He’s now studying to become a licensed social worker and will graduate with his Masters degree from NKU this May – but he still gives back to the Cincinnati State community that helped him get a fresh start: continuing to support BMI, mentoring students and sharing his inspiring experience.

As Bryan puts it: he used to be addicted to drugs; today he’s “addicted to A’s.”  His journey shows how a great education can offer a second chance at a whole new life.  The America’s College Promise proposal – now a bill awaiting action in Congress – could make thousands more stories like Bryan’s possible.

Cincinnati State represents the strength of the community college model, welcoming 21st century students, including low-income, first-generation, minority, adult students with jobs and families, and workers seeking to skill up for better career ladders. During a roundtable discussion with the Secretary, school administrators, professors, students, alumni, business partners, and civic leaders had the opportunity to share some examples of the difference this hub for quality education skills training, and workforce development is making for graduates, employers, and the region’s economy.

The school offers dual enrollment opportunities, so high school students can earn credits toward a degree, and has launched a new high-quality charter school – a STEM academy right on campus. Through the “C-State Accelerate” program, low-income students with remedial get the extra support they need to get an Associate’s degree in 3 years, with tuition/textbook assistance, monthly incentives, academic coaching/career guidance.  Cincinnati State offers scholarships to help reduce college costs, and increase retention. The college’s Workforce Development Center offers everything from courses toward a technical certificate or degree, to short-term technical training tied to labor market needs.

And, targeted student networks and services help to ensure that every student has the inspiration and resources needed to succeed.  For example, the Black Male Initiative (BMI) is dedicated to helping men of color earn more degrees and reach their full potential.

The visit began with a tour of a classroom where students in Information Technology were working to set up servers and desktop computer hardware and software – part of a “capstone” project designed to provide every student with hands-on, real world experience before they graduate and join the workforce.  Through this experience, students prove they have the skills needed to configure the same complex hardware and software that’s in demand in today’s corporate world.

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up day four of the Ready for Success bus tour:


  1. Note: Community Colleges are an economic engine because they serve the widest diversity of student needs from educational remediation to become college/university ready, to a wide variety of degree topics (both AA and transfer), to vocational certificates, to just getting retrained or improving some basic or needed skills to get job promotions. Often times CCC students do not need nor want a ‘degree’, they want training, and that is what they get.

    That said, the vast majority of students in the Community College systems of America are taught by under-paid, under-valued and exploited part-time, contingent or adjunct faculty (most with MAs and PhDs). Most of these faculty earn about 1/2 of what a full-time or tenured faculty member earns and typically it is not a livable wage. If America is serious about using the CC system as an economic engine, they must do so by not exploiting the vast majority of the faculty who teach the students who attend their colleges.

  2. As somebody who has directly helped (money and counseling) a number of students on their higher education path, I do not agree with the characterization of two-year schools as being economic engines for the middle class. Academic rigor is not that high, specificity of career preparation is not great, and the graduation rate is abysmal.

    • I’m sorry that your experience with two-year colleges has been less than stellar, but not every college is the same. The college I attended, and now work for, is exceptional. Though a rural college, Centralia College is ranked second in Washington State, and 37th in the nation by CNN Money. We have much higher than national average graduation rates, provide transfer degrees, workforce training and degree programs, childhood and prison education programs, and we are now entering the bachelor arena, to name just a few. We are also an economic engine in Lewis County, a rural county that is economically disadvantaged. I applaud your efforts to help students, and encourage you to continue, but you might also want to work with your local college to help increase standards and accessibility, because education truly can change someones life, it changed mine.

  3. How can we visit or hear Arne Duncan speak? We are 7 miles away from Cincinnati in Norwood, Ohio. We have a collaborative called #NorwoodREADYKIDS working on age 0-5 early childhood education. Would love for you to visit us or for our group to come to you!

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