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The "Other"College

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By Dan Moriarty

president, Portland Community College

June brings a time of change for students across our state, many of whom face important decisions in the very near future. Of those who are college-bound, the majority will turn to the community college to begin their march toward a baccalaureate degree. But you wouldn’t know it if you asked state university leaders, many elected officials and community leaders, and even some media gatekeepers.

Here’s what is known. For some time now, community colleges and work force training have become almost synonymous in the metropolitan area and throughout the state. The Oregon Business Council in a December 1997 survey, "Report of the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education and the Oregon Economy," reported the high degree of satisfaction expressed by businesses in the training and partnership provided by community colleges. Companies as large as Intel and as small as a neighborhood florist turn to community colleges for the training their businesses require to grow and prosper, whether in Medford, Salem or Hillsboro. Federal dislocated worker programs and welfare-to-work programs rely on community colleges to move people in transition to living-wage jobs and renewed self-respect.

Thousands of individuals come to the community college to improve computer skills, to train for careers in medical and industrial fields and, literally, for more than a hundred other technical specialties – all vital to the state increasingly dependent on technology.

That’s the good news. But what gets lost in the process of assuming this role and identity is that the major and still dominant role of the community colleges in providing access to higher education and the baccalaureate degree has been overshadowed. Even diminished.

The facts should speak for themselves. At Portland Community College, more that 60 percent of our degree credit students are enrolled in transfer courses – language, math, science, history, psychology and the like. In raw numbers, almost 13,000 students register in any term for transfer courses, compared to 24,000 first- and second-year students in all of the Oregon University System. At all community colleges, the number of students enrolled in transfer courses adds up to 36,000 students.

In short, 60 percent of first- and second-year enrollments in transfer courses in this state are at the community colleges. Currently, more than 11,000 students enrolled in the Oregon University System come from community colleges. By any measure, community colleges are a significant pathway, even a majority pathway, to higher education in this state. The people know it; they choose with their feet. For most citizens in our community, community colleges are the colleges of choice for the first and second years of the baccalaureate program.

But the facts apparently don’t speak for themselves. Or at least the major role played by community colleges in transfer education is not always recognized. In a recent article, "Higher Education Leaders Speak Out," in the Associated Oregon Industries "Business Viewpoint" (Jan/Feb. 1999), in response to a question from an association editor about community colleges, the presidents of our four-year colleges and universities almost to a person identified the role of the community college as work force, remedial and technical-vocational training, with hardly a mention of the transfer role.

In our secondary schools, students are presented with all kinds of options for post-secondary education, whether in Oregon or in Orono, Maine, but community colleges are frequently not in the starting line-up when it comes to baccalaureate education. When elected leaders and community leaders talk about higher education, you can be very sure they are not talking about community colleges. They mean primarily baccalaureate education at the university level.

Does it matter what our institutions and our leaders think and say? Absolutely, it does. The facts are that most students at the first- and second-year levels are in Oregon’s community colleges and that the number of community college transfers in "higher education" grows every year. As they have done historically, people know and come to the community colleges for the first years of their baccalaureate program, despite the low visibility of our transfer programs and despite the lack of recognition given to them in some sectors of our community.

The citizens deserve better. Prospective students and parents need to know that community colleges do offer a choice for the first two years of college, and they need to have this information reinforced by colleges, secondary schools, leaders in our community and representatives of the media. Community colleges are not a side door or back door to a baccalaureate degree. Their front door opens up to Main Street, USA.

Students who have chosen or are about to choose a community college to begin their baccalaureate studies this fall will not be disappointed. They will be in the majority of their fellow citizens and they will meet the same standards as those who have opted for a different venue.

While community colleges are justly proud of their reputation for work force development, they are equally proud of the popularity and success of their college transfer programs. Ask the students, they know.

This piece was reprinted from the Spring/Summer ’99 issue of the PCC publication "Communi-ties."

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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