Commentary by Chancellor Tucker: W.Va.'s best kept secret? Community and Technical Colleges
“We all need to start talking about the promise of a community college education.” —Chancellor Tucker
Gov. Justice frequently says that West Virginians don’t brag enough about themselves, and he’s right. Perhaps one of West Virginia’s best kept secrets is its community and technical colleges. The West Virginia Community and Technical College System includes nine public community and technical colleges, strategically located across the state, providing easy access for students and regional interaction with employers. Our colleges work directly with business and industry to ensure that our programs meet their workforce needs.
In a state which faces a workforce skills gap, our community colleges continue to increase the number of individuals who have degrees and workforce certificates, with more than a 27 percent growth in degrees earned in the past five years alone.
West Virginia’s community colleges are doing some of the most innovative and interesting work of any community colleges across the country. We’re getting smarter about scheduling. Gone are the days of a community college running solely on a traditional academic calendar. We have semesters within semesters, summer programs, and year round learning opportunities. As we are frequently reminded, people don’t get laid off on a semester by semester basis. So we are making sure we provide prospective students opportunities to learn new skills and essential job training throughout the year.
It’s not just students who need year-round training opportunities, businesses do as well. Companies hiring needs aren’t limited to June, after college commencement ceremonies, they’re year-round. They also need their current employees to learn new skills throughout the year. That’s why our community and technical colleges train more than 3,000 existing West Virginia employees every year. Whether they need to learn the latest IT software, gain supervisory training, or learn how to use a new piece of equipment, we’re here to help.
Our long-standing employer partnerships speak to the quality of our efforts. We’ve worked with more than 700 employers across the state to help build the workforce they need to be successful. The beauty of community college programming is its flexibility. We build programs around what the employer wants — not what we think the employer wants, or simply what we want to provide, but what the employer actually says they want. And we do that by listening to their needs, their hurdles, and their objectives. Too often, higher education tries to impose a rigid structure on the malleable world of business and industry. In so doing, they miss the mark. That’s why we’ve changed the way we do business, and it’s working.
Graduates from many of our programs have a 100 percent placement rate — they are able to get a good-paying job in their field immediately after graduation. Or biggest problem though, and why I say the community and technical colleges are one of West Virginia’s best kept secrets, is that we don’t have enough students. Some of our programs are only half-full because, we believe a lot of West Virginians don’t know about our programs, flexibility of scheduling, support services, or our affordability.
Community colleges are the gateway to higher education. They should be the first place recent high school graduates and adults turn to when thinking about going to college. West Virginians should take a look at our programs, at our partnerships and at our facilities. We want them to understand that community college is a viable, affordable, and sensible option for certificate training, associate’s degrees, and a pathway to bachelor’s degrees at our partner institutions.
Our average student is 29 years old. Only 8 percent of recent high school graduates go on to a community college. Often, community college students had once enrolled in a four-year college and decided to drop out. Others may never have gone to college, only to later learn they need post-secondary training to get the job they want or even to open doors to other opportunities. In the meantime, they’ve spent a decade of their lives with lower earning potential and perhaps even student loan debt, with nothing to show for it.
We all need to start talking about the promise of a community college education. We need to talk to our children, our neighbors and our neighbors’ children. Tell them good paying jobs are available right now in West Virginia for people with quality education and training beyond a high school diploma. Tell them their community and technical colleges will give them a path forward in the state they call home.
Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker is the West Virginia Chancellor for Community and Technical College Education. Prior to her role as chancellor, she served as the director of planning and research for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia. She holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from Harvard University, a master of arts in quantitative research methodology from the University of Michigan, and a doctorate from the School of Education at the University of Michigan.
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