Historically, there has been little lag time between an economic change or population shift and its impact at community colleges. During their first century, community colleges responded adroitly to the demands of the times. When World War II veterans using the GI Bill packed campuses at the same time industries needed skilled workers to convert from armaments to consumer goods, community colleges added workforce training to their academic repertoire. When the optimism of the 1960s made education the preferred method of remedying social inequities, hundreds of community colleges were built to accommodate new students.
Technology is the driving force behind the newest test of community colleges' agility. Technological advances make it possible for people to live longer. As the overall population increases, community college enrollment is expected to grow, and the colleges will likely confer more associate degrees. (PDF, 11.9 KB) Technological innovations in the workplace are expected to continue to fuel enrollment by people seeking training or skills upgrades. Demographers predict that the maturation of the post-World War II baby boomers' children will send a new influx of traditional college-age students to community colleges in the next decade.
Distance learning technologies may increase community colleges' capacity without massive new building projects. Technology also may help accommodate enrollment growth, but it is not the total solution. Technology is expensive. A bad choice in software or hardware means a college is left behind. As a college waits for the technology to stabilize, it risks losing students to other higher education providers.
During the few years of its widespread use, the Internet has intensified competition in higher education by erasing the geographic boundaries that historically defined public community colleges' domains. Electronic delivery of courses has also generated faculty compensation issues and questions about intellectual property rights.
Technology increases the potential for people who live in remote areas to advance their education, but it also carries the risk of cutting out the low-income populations community colleges serve, because accessing the Internet requires a personal computer of fairly recent vintage. Owning a computer is beyond the means of many community college students.
Because of technological advances in communication and transportation, foreign trade is growing. Consequently, more businesses are looking for people with an understanding of international issues. Many community colleges offer international programs. While such programs are not available at every college, pressure is increasing for community colleges to foster an awareness of foreign cultures and the interconnected nature of the world economy.
Constraints on public funds show no signs of abating, as more legislatures predicate budget increases upon performance of specific goals. Competition is pushing community colleges to consider students as customers whose instruction and services should be delivered at the time, location, and pace of the students' choosing. In turn, emphasis on student learning is growing as employers and society expects students to demonstrate competence in what they have been taught.
The flexibility of community colleges will be tested in the future as never before. Time will tell whether the pressures upon community colleges transform them in fundamental ways or elicit minor adjustments. Community colleges' history of ingenuity and resiliency makes them strong contenders for the 21st century.
Based on material from National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends & Statistics, Phillippe & Patton, 2000.