I believe the time-honored adage that necessity is the mother of invention. The birth of the junior college, for example, owes its inspiration to the need for precollege preparation of high school students in 1901. Need for postwar job training led the 1947 Truman Commission to promise expanded postsecondary education—a community college within commuting distance of everyone. More than 7.5 million individuals have benefited at more than 1,100 community colleges since that historic commitment.
If we are to achieve President Obama’s education goal for the nation, we must continue to apply such ingenuity, particularly to the challenges that will come from rising enrollments. Bunker Hill Community College has seen a 31 percent increase in its enrollment, a statistic that has brought with it distinct demands.
The continuing growth is not unique to Bunker Hill, nor does it show signs of slowing down. To the contrary, when our institutions can least afford it, more students are coming to us for some of the same reasons that led to the inception of community colleges. Only this time, it’s different. It’s different because our country needs an economic recovery desperately, and immediately. It’s different because that economic recovery depends upon training for jobs, some of which are yet to be created. It’s different because more students than ever before need more developmental education. It’s different because more people live below the poverty line and have almost no chance of succeeding in college, according to the Education Trust. It’s different because financial aid doesn’t make it possible for some to afford even their local community colleges. And it’s different now, I believe, because more individuals lack optimism about their futures.
If, indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, what better time than now for community colleges to embrace their growing national recognition—as well as the inevitable scrutiny that accompanies it? President Obama has characterized community colleges as “an undervalued asset.” Others assert that we are now in the headlights and under the microscope. After decades of benign neglect, I think that’s something to celebrate.
We face enrollment increases amid a dire funding scenario. Budgets are tighter than ever and new buildings remain blueprints for many of us. Yet some of the most effective coping strategies and progressive ideas are transforming our institutions despite these debilitating conditions. Learning communities at Bunker Hill and at many community colleges are changing teaching and learning forever, causing upward swings in persistence and completion rates. Combining developmental courses with content courses is decreasing attrition. As an Achieving the Dream (ATD) institution, my college and more than 80 others have already narrowed achievement gaps. Interventions such as our college’s Student Emergency Assistance Fund, which awards up to $1,000 with a three-day turnaround and no strings attached, have shown an almost 20 percent increase in student course persistence. Facing a daunting shortage of space on our campus, faculty and staff ingenuity gave birth to our midnight courses, which are offered when space is plentiful at Bunker Hill. Learning at midnight has become so popular that what started as a pilot of two courses has now become eight.
Conditions may be among the toughest many of us have experienced. Let no one doubt the resiliency and resourcefulness of our nation’s community colleges. We lack financial resources but there is no shortage of heart or purpose to get us through this.
Mary L. Fifield is president of Bunker Hill Community College.