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September 30, 2013

Column: Community colleges are on a mission

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.

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