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Community Colleges Take Practical Approach to Education

Community colleges have become gateways to meaningful employment for students focused on obtaining practical skills that will make them attractive both to local companies and to global firms.

Flexibility and adaptability are hallmarks of the U.S. higher education system, with America’s roughly 1,200 community colleges providing an example that is attracting increasing numbers of international students while also being studied as a model for India and other nations.

Conceived in the late 1880’s as a bridge between high schools and four-year colleges, these two-year institutions still fulfill that role but also have become gateways to meaningful employment for thousands of students focused on obtaining practical skills that will make them attractive both to local companies and to global firms. This broadening focus —sometimes called “glocal”—reflects a more inclusive concept of community that recognizes local industries with global business ties, foreign firms with U.S. operations and the reality that practical skills are valued everywhere.

“U.S. community colleges have been and continue to be gateways to higher education for American and increasingly for international students,” says Alice Blayne-Allard, associate vice president for International Programs and Services at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“Now, community colleges are becoming more familiar to Indian parents and prospective students because they are so cost-effective. Even though most community colleges have to charge foreign students the higher, out-of-state tuition rates, they are still far less expensive than public or private colleges.”

Community colleges offer a wide variety of programs, with subjects ranging from culinary arts to criminal justice and nursing to nuclear technology. Most have ongoing relationships with companies that can make it easier for their graduates to find full-time employment. Since most community college students already work, many classes are offered at night or online. Most students obtain some form of financial aid to help with tuition and fees whose combined costs run less than half than those of public four-year colleges, according to AACC.

Although most international students who attend U.S. community colleges go on to four-year institutions, “We are seeing growing interest in skills development coming from foreign governments that see the benefit of sending students to the U.S. for technical training and English language development that will help them be more competitive in the job markets at home,” says Blayne-Allard.

The next logical step for foreign governments—adapting the American community college model for their own countries—is the focus of cooperative efforts between the Indian and U.S. governments.

“When we look at countries around the world in terms of who has been most effective in educating their population as a whole, the only country that has done it at a scale anywhere near that required by countries like India is the United States,” says Lee Lambert, currently chancellor of Pima Community College in Arizona. Lambert was a keynote speaker at an international conference on community colleges in New Delhi in February 2013.

“It’s exciting to see a country like India that wants to provide more education for its people, and it’s exciting for us as well because we can help them where they are right now and where they want to go in the future,” says Lambert. “They have an advantage because they don’t have to start with old technology, they can start with where things are now.”

India’s enormous opportunities in the education area are well recognized by U.S. educators.

“I believe India is going to potentially change the way higher education is delivered around the world, given their human dividend, the sheer number of citizens they are trying to educate,” says Blayne-Allard. “India is exploring best practices from around the world and looking at the U.S. model and we are happy to share our best practices and help them develop. It’s an exciting time for India and the U.S. to be engaged in this effort, because I believe India’s population and economy is going to drive the 21st century economy and that requires an educated workforce.”


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.