When America’s first community college, Joliet Junior College in Illinois, opened its doors to six students in 1901, its mission was clear: provide the first two years of a liberal arts education to young scholars who it was hoped would transition from the Joliet Township High School to the University of Chicago.
Now, over a century later, a network of more than 1,100 community colleges, including Northern Essex Community College, which opened in 1961, serves 13 million students across the country each year. That’s about half of all the undergraduates at all of the public and private colleges and universities in all 50 states.
And our mission has expanded -- a lot.
Those of us who devote our lives and careers to community colleges will tell you with pride about our “open door.” Put simply: We don’t turn anyone away.
We are a uniquely American institution, sometimes referred to as “Democracy’s Colleges,” and through that open door we enroll a larger proportion of first-generation students, minority students, low-income students, veterans and students with disabilities than any other sector of higher education.
We admit, advise, teach, tutor, coach, support, prepare and, often, befriend and advocate for some of the most fragile and at-risk students in the communities we serve, as well as a growing number of savvy honors students, athletes, career-changers and class valedictorians.
And we do all of that at a cost to both students and taxpayers that is far lower than you will find at either public or private universities.
Admittedly, we have a very broad mission that, for NECC and most community colleges, includes:
-- Transfer education: As in the early days of Joliet Junior College, we prepare “traditional” students to transition from high school to upper-level undergraduate and, perhaps graduate-level, courses and degrees.
-- Career education: Providing students with one- or two-year degrees and certificates in areas like health care, criminal justice, computer science and paralegal studies that help them go right to work.
-- Remedial or developmental education: A majority of students enrolling in community colleges for the first time aren’t quite ready for college. They need help with math, writing, reading or learning English as a second language first.
-- Community or continuing education: Most community colleges offer non-credit courses in things like art, landscape design, photography and sports and leisure activities for the community.
-- Workforce development or industry training: Contracted or grant-funded training or education with a local company or industry sector that pays the college to provide specific training or courses for thei wr employees.
Over the last few years, as many four-year colleges and universities have become more expensive and more selective, and as getting a job has become more challenging, state and national leaders have been looking more closely -- and sometimes more critically -- at the mission of community colleges and asking if perhaps we are doing too much to be as effective as we should be.
They want to know: Are we trying to be “all things to all people” when we should be focusing on doing two or three things really well?
We want to know the same thing, so NECC is examining what we do, how we do it, and who we do it for, and writing a new mission statement for the road ahead of us.
To help get us started, we invited a perhaps unlikely guest speaker to our Fall Convocation ceremony last week: Paul Grogan, the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.
In November of 2011, the Boston Foundation released a report called “The Case for Community Colleges.”
The report acknowledged some of the challenges faced by Massachusetts community colleges, such as the overwhelming number of students who arrive at campuses like ours not prepared for college-level course work and the significant erosion of public funding for higher education in the Commonwealth.
At the same time, the foundation took community colleges to task for having missions that are “too broad,” poor graduation rates, inconsistent policies and practices across the state, patchwork transfer agreements and an insufficient responsiveness to the workforce development needs of employers in the state.
In the two years since the Boston Foundation report was issued, the governor’s office, the Department of Higher Education, the state Legislature, foundations, employers, chambers of commerce and the colleges themselves have discussed, debated and implemented some important changes -- including, after several years of declining state support, an additional $20 million in funding for the Commonwealth’s community college system.
Because, even as we sometimes disagree, and seek new common ground for what our mission is, one thing we know is that community colleges like NECC are vital to the educational, cultural and economic life of the state and deserve that kind of support, and more.
As Paul Grogan reminded a crowd of nearly 300 faculty and staff gathered at NECC’s Fall Convocation last week, “The promise of America is that anyone can rise to the top, and education is the key.”
And for more and more Americans (and those seeking to rise up in other parts of the world, too), that education begins at your local community college, where our mission matters.
If you have thoughts about the mission of Northern Essex Community College, your input is welcome. Please send your ideas my way at email@example.com.
Dr. Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College with campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence.