Some educators and political scientists would argue that America's system of community colleges is the bedrock achievement of the public higher education system. Community colleges were the byproduct of the Johnson administration's "Great Society" initiative to reduce poverty and make education more accessible to working class and poorer students.
In two years or less, a community college student can receive schooling on a variety of programs from hands-on vocational training such as fixing computers and plumbing to a traditional liberal arts curriculum that results in a transferable associate's degree.
These community colleges are publicly owned and operated by coalitions of local school districts, making them an ideal stepping stone from high school to the workforce or more advanced education.
I am a student at Lehigh Carbon Community College in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. Known as LCCC for short, this institution is publicly financed and run by the school districts of Carbon, Lehigh, and Schuylkill Counties. It is one of 16 public community and junior colleges in Pennsylvania.
People here are pinched for education. There are many famous schools in the area like Lehigh University and Moravian College. Sadly many of these schools are outside the financial range of many students. This is where LCCC comes into the picture. For residents of the three counties LCCC's per-credit tuition is $91 - a very reasonable rate for working class and other low-income students compared to other public institutions in Pennsylvania.
But there's still inequality in higher education that needs to be stamped out. A common complaint of any college student regardless of economic status is college textbook prices. This semester I am only taking three classes, or nine credits. My total textbook prices turned out to be well over $400. Textbooks should be subsidized to cover all costs and reduce the financial burden on students so they can worry about studying and getting good grades instead of wondering whether they have to choose between their academics or next meal.
And more can be done. Ultimately, we need to get to a system where higher education is free and all educational costs are covered, much like in Europe and other developed countries.
We can start by expanding Pell grants and state grants to more students in the short term.
Beyond that, college loans are crippling everyone. It's an unfair system based on capitalist principles that deprive working people of educational opportunities. Loans should be phased out and replaced by guaranteed federal scholarships which cover all students who want a quality public education. These scholarships and expanded grants would be covered by progressive taxation on the 1% who at the end of the day will still be able to afford to go to Harvard and Yale.
Does everyone need to go to a traditional college? More and more community colleges are expanding to offer four-year degrees and even some graduate coursework. These colleges still offer students of all ages financial flexibility and a great education for half the cost of a traditional four-year school.
Although LCCC is only a stepping stone until I transfer my degree to a four-year school; I am learning to overcome stereotypes I had about these schools and public education in general.
LCCC is well funded and offers students with disabilities like me extra help in navigation of college life. Accommodations processes are streamlined, counseling for transition difficulties and other mental health problems is free, the faculty and staff are sensitive and friendly to my needs, and extra help such as tutoring and drop-in help labs are free for all students who request it.
Some of the things that now help me here at LCCC were never at Mercyhurst College, a traditional liberal arts school that I attended last year. First off the faculty, despite popular opinion of community colleges, are very knowledgeable and know what they're doing. Many of them are retired professors from major universities and colleges.
The Career Development Center helps students with job hunting tips, resume building, and job placement to transition from college to a career.
Student activities and clubs here are not only fun but provide real educational value. I've already connected with the campus LGBT alliance and plan on making contacts with other progressive minded students in the multicultural association and the political society.
The library has the biggest selection of books and articles that I've ever seen. It is vastly bigger than what I saw at Mercyhurst. Books on every subject imaginable to help students research and dialogue effectively are all there. Articles and knowledge are easy to access online for free.
I spend much of my free time there reading on progressive values and history. It's exciting stuff. I now finally understand the value of a public education that should be accessible to all students who wish to learn as I do.
Don't let anyone tell you that public education isn't worth investing in. Our system of community colleges offers a comprehensive and high quality educational experience for millions of students just finding their way into higher learning. Let's have community colleges as their first stop on their journey and quest for knowledge and learning.
Photo: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announces Jan. 24 proposal to reform state's community colleges. Office of Governor Patrick // CC 2.0