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Powerful Higher Education On a Local Level

American and international students excel at community colleges.

“Community colleges are proud to provide access,” says Carolyn Terry, instructional dean of humanities at Montgomery College in Maryland. “At four-year universities, it becomes more prestigious to claim how few people you admit, but community colleges are open-enrollment institutions. Every student will find something that fits his or her abilities and interests.”

When Did Community Colleges Become Cool?

The student center lobby at San Jacinto College’s Central Campus.

Not many years ago, community colleges were widely thought of as subpar schools, places where people went when they had nowhere else to go. These days? It’s a completely different story.

More than 45 percent of post-high-school students in the United States attend community colleges, says Montgomery College Instructional Dean Carolyn Terry, and the two-year institutions are now regarded as serious places to get a good education. Community colleges have even grabbed prominence in popular American media, playing central roles in novels, movies and NBC’s comedy show “Community” in recent years.

Why the shift? “Higher education costs have increased so much for universities and student debt has topped a trillion dollars in the U.S.,” says Terry. “Community colleges are affordable and the credits are transferable. Also, students don’t have to go away and live somewhere else in order to get a strong education.”

A focus on workforce development has also been a major factor in the rejuvenation of community colleges’ collective cred. “People are realizing that you can’t simply train for a career that’s going to last you for 40 years,” says Terry. “You need a place where you can get your skills upgraded or brush up on your technical knowledge—and most working adults don’t want to go to a university for another four-year degree.”

With higher enrollments come new opportunities for community colleges to innovate, invest and cooperate with other institutions. “Community colleges let people develop new, marketable skills,” Terry says. —M.G.

Such a welcoming philosophy has helped over 1,600 community colleges provide educational opportunities for students across the United States. It is a trend that many in India are actively working to jumpstart in their own country as well.

For several years, Montgomery College has worked with the U.S. Department of Education, the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development and corporate partners to support India’s project to open 200 community colleges within the country, says Terry. “India has a well-defined and prestigious university system, but there’s still a tremendous need for workforce education, for people to learn new skills and technology,” she continues. “The government of India is putting a huge amount of resources into developing a community college system that can provide education for millions of people. Ultimately, this system may grow to be as large as 10,000 community colleges.”

For Terry and her colleagues, the partnership has manifested in exchanges between faculty and administrators. Montgomery College has welcomed delegations from India to its campuses, providing guidance on topics like curriculum design and support services for students. “We act as consultants to help India build the kinds of institutions that they need,” Terry says.

Community colleges in the United States let students work toward a two-year associate’s degree, providing a core education that can be transferred into a four-year bachelor’s degree program—or simply stand on its own. Community colleges also offer technical and career-specific training. For example, Montgomery College’s offerings include programs on automotive technology, information technology, radiology, graphic design technology and the rapidly expanding field of cybersecurity.

David Pan, U.S. Army veteran and former Montgomery College student, originally enrolled in a four-year university, but did not find the opportunities he was seeking. “It was hard to get a good teacher sometimes, or even to be seated in the classes I needed to take, so it was also hard to choose my educational direction,” he says. “At Montgomery College, if you want to take a class, as long as you qualify, you can do it.”

The atmosphere and diversity of Montgomery College also appealed to Pan, as they do to many students. According to Terry, 2013 saw the college welcoming over 200 students who travelled from India to study, as well as nearly 700 from Cameroon and hundreds more from other nations. “There was less pressure,” Pan says of the college’s inclusive culture, “but, at the same time, the college was professional and took the task of education very seriously. It worked for me and I got a lot of knowledge out of it.” Pan plans to return to Montgomery College in the near future to learn new computer languages.

For students coming to community colleges in the United States from India, Terry recommends studying hard for standardized English language tests like TOEFL and IELTS. “The better you do on those exams, the more advanced you will be in your placement when you come here,” she says. “Also important is finding someone in the local community around your college where you can make a connection—family, a friend or an organization that can help you build a network to support you during your studies.”

Though community colleges provide plenty of opportunities, such inclusion can sometimes come at a cost. “Since they’re so inclusive, community colleges find themselves trying to meet many needs at the same time, but with limited resources,” says Terry. “There are some hard questions being asked about if it’s possible to continue being ‘everything to everybody,’ or if limits have to be imposed.”

Struggles over resources aside, the core philosophy of community colleges continues to be hugely attractive to students, regardless of whether they live in nearby neighborhoods or oceans away. “Access is something that defines the community college experience,” Terry affirms. “If you come here, you will find something for you.”


Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.