May 5, 2000

Survey Shows Community Colleges Key in Technology Economy

Chula Vista, Ca. — Southwestern College and other two-year colleges across the nation are playing a critical role in delivering skills to keep leading industries competitive and have become the de facto provider of choice for computer training according to national survey findings released Tuesday in Washington, DC.

Conducted jointly by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and ACT, the "Faces of the Future" survey examined a nationally representative sampling of both credit and non-credit students from the 10.4 million students enrolled in the nation's 1,132 community, junior, and technical colleges. Among key findings are:

Students from 18 to 80 are turning to community colleges for computer-related education, giving the colleges a critical role in narrowing the "digital divide." Gaining computer/technology skills was reported as a major reason for attending for 18% of all credit respondents (15% for SWC credit students). This was especially true for roughly one-quarter of first-generation students (23%), single parents (25%), and unemployed individuals (24%). The percentage of students seeking computer skills increased with age: 24% of students aged 26-39; 32% of students aged 40-59; and 35% of students aged 60 or older.

Community colleges are a critical link in producing the quantity and quality of workers needed to fuel the exploding technology industry, a fact that may fundamental change the nature of non-credit course-work. Over 1 in 10 (12%) credit students who reported they were training for a new career were studying in a computer of communications-related field, including 16% of students aged 40-59. Currently most states do not fund non-credit classes, and most 4-year colleges and universities do not accept for transfer coursework completed for high-demand certifications such as Novell and Cisco Systems.

Students who have already attained advanced degrees choose community colleges to upgrade skills. Almost one-third (28%) of non-credit students at respondent colleges has already earned bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees (20.3% for SWC non-credit students).

Community colleges play a substantial role generally in preparing students for today's workplace. Among credit students, 60% said the major reason for taking classes was to meet occupational requirements (52.2% of SWC students). Nearly half of full-time, employed credit students said that increasing their earning power was a major motivator, and 37% said the major reason for attending was to make a career change. On the non-credit side, 13% of students said their employers' requiring them to take classes was a major reason they enrolled, a finding that correlates with the increasing amount of customized "contract" training for business community colleges have reported over the last decade.

In a decade of steeply rising tuitions, community colleges are the best and sometimes only hope to ensure career and earning competitiveness for the least skilled and most economically disadvantaged. Of non-credit students, 29% who were unemployed and seeking work reported public assistance as a source of funds; 18% reported it as a major source of funds. Over half of community college students are first-generation students whose parents did not attend college (the same for SWC students). These students are more likely to be attending part-time, older, minority, and seeking job-specific skills. Among first-generation students, 22% reported household incomes of less than $20,000, and they were more likely to have come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken.

Far from the "second choice" status community colleges have long endured, students who "try the product" report positive reactions. More than 80% of students from respondent colleges were satisfied or highly satisfied with their community college experience (78% of SWC students).

"That statistics is a ringing endorsement from students," said ACT President Richard L. Ferguson. "Our survey points to the effectiveness of community college curriculum and its impact on helping people achieve their life and career goals. Community colleges are building the skills of the nation's workforce, helping bridge the digital divide and giving people a convenient and cost-effective way to pursue lifelong learning."

The "Faces of the Future" study was conducted in credit and non-credit classrooms in fall 1999. More than 100,000 students at 245 community colleges in 41 states responded. Analysis of geographic location, college size, and urban/rural setting indicated that respondent colleges were generally representative of all community colleges. To adjust for minor discrepancies, ACT applied statistical weights to the data to more accurately reflect a national picture.

AACC sees the new data as validation of the greatly expanded and significantly underfunded value of the community college mission. Although the colleges enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, they receive less than 30% of state and local higher education dollars. In addition, community colleges enroll higher percentages of women, minority students, older adults, and the disabled—groups the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will provide most new workers in the future.

Southwestern College serves more than 16,000 students, offers 152 academic majors and career certificate programs to South San Diego County residents. According to Serafin Zasueta, Ph.D., college president, "These data confirm what we know: Southwestern College is a critical nexus for educational technology for the South County. It is imperative that our programs and students receive equal treatment in the state funding process. Southwestern College and its students are disadvantaged by an outdated state funding formula that results in $3 Million less than the state average each year."

"Over their 100-year history, community colleges have significantly expanded their role in keeping the great `engine' of this nation running," said AACC President David Pierce. "But they have often gone underfunded and unrecognized for the contribution they make to academic enterprise. This study documents the essential and, in the case of computer literacy, leading role the colleges are playing."

AACC and ACT plan to make the national survey an annual activity to provide ongoing data about this largest sector of higher education.

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