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President Trump Is Not Wrong About Community Colleges, But He Should Be

Community colleges prioritize vocation over education.

On more than one occasion, President Trump has declared his fondness for “vocational schools” and his distaste for “community colleges.” As he told an audience at the “Generation Next” White House forum in March: “So we need vocational schools. Now, they call them, a lot of times, community colleges. I don’t think it’s an accurate definition.” For these statements and others, Trump has been criticized for apparently misunderstanding the mission of community colleges.

A number of groups (and individuals), including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), have responded to Trump’s statements. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the AACC, took issue with the characterization of the community college as simply a vocational school. Without mentioning Trump by name, in an editorial, Bumphus outlined the multiple missions of the community college and wrote that community colleges are “vocational … and many other things.” What Bumphus omitted from the article was that while community colleges may have multiple missions, nationally, they suffer from declining enrollment, poor retention, abysmal graduation rates, low transfer rates and they are failing in terms of job retraining. Furthermore, it’s highly doubtful that Trump would ever pay much (if any) heed to Bumphus’s argument; the AACC has little political capital in Washington.

Trump is certainly misinformed concerning the multiple roles community colleges play, but he is not wrong in his characterization of the 21st century community college. By declaring that community colleges should all become “vocational schools,” he simply removed any pretense that they focus on providing an education. His mistake was not in calling them vocational schools, but in using outdated language: In the current jargon, “Vocational Technical Education” has been replaced by the more palatable “Career Technical Education.”

In 1946, following World War II, President Truman appointed a commission to re-examine the role of higher education in American society. The Truman Commission, in its 1947 report “Higher Education for American Democracy,” called for higher education to be accessible for all Americans: “[T]he social role of education in a democratic society is at once to insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups.” The commission agreed with the national leadership of the community college and with many of those in higher education that the community college should offer programs of terminal education. That said, the commission asserted that “one of the [community college’s] primary functions is to lay a foundation in general education.” They understood that “general education” was critical in order for students to gain the knowledge and critical thinking skills required to be an active and productive “citizen” in a democracy. Tragically, the Truman Commission’s vision for community colleges has been diminished beyond recognition.

The role that education should play in a democracy has been ignored to promote a shortsighted vision of career and technical education that traps community college students in dead-end jobs and deprives them of the platform and ability to participate in making decisions affecting their future. Instead, they are trained for positions most vulnerable to advances in technology and told not to worry about those “unnecessary” courses. A job without an education is a poor investment of time and money.

This version of education has abandoned the “democratic citizenship” mandate of the Truman Commission in favor of a reductive vocationalism that equates citizenship with employment. It does little to prepare students for full participation in society or for the inevitable shifts in patterns of employment. This a view shared by neoliberals and conservatives alike. In calling for vocational schools, Trump is simply extending the decade-long mantra of the Obama administration’s era of “workforce training.” (If Democratic and Republican politicians agree on one thing, it is this: Community colleges are vocational schools.)

During the Great Recession, President Obama repeatedly called community colleges “job training centers,” and the AACC was quite happy to not only support this characterization, but to promote it. The AACC’s latest report on the future of the 21st century community college, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” focuses on the idea of community colleges as vocational schools/job training centers. Central to the report’s recommendations is that the community college “find ways to align programs and degree offerings more closely with labor-market demand.” Policy makers at the state and local level, as well as community college leaders, have promoted this idea with religious fervor: Any curriculum not related to job training should be diminished or cut.

For example, Kentucky’s governor, while drastically reducing higher education funding in the state, has repeatedly called for colleges to cut disciplines and programs that don’t directly lead to jobs. In response to such pronouncements and policies, Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Associate of Applied Science (AAS), often called the “go-to-work” degree, is now promoted to the detriment of (general) education: Students in various AAS programs no longer need to take courses in biology, chemistry, economics, foreign languages, geology, geography, history, humanities, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology and sociology. The college now more closely resembles the defunct for-profit Everest Institute than it does an academic institution.

Meanwhile, California’s proposed online community college is essentially a vocational school: “It will not issue degrees, instead focusing on short-term credentials in high-demand fields, such as advanced manufacturing, health care and child development.”

Community colleges have adopted recruitment and advising strategies to support these new credentials. The in-vogue “Guided Pathways” model — which is intended to offer students a structured course sequence within a particular major and is designed to facilitate quick completion of a degree or certificate — actually discourages (or in some cases, prohibits) students from taking electives in disciplines in which they might explore and discover new subjects of interest. The dozen or so courses that pay the bills at every community college are cannibalized to fund technical programs. The courses with the largest enrollments also have the majority of adjunct instructors who are woefully underpaid and have little power to advocate for resources. In many ways, community colleges have reduced or eliminated the faculty needed to develop and oversee viable curricula. In their place, an ever-increasing cadre of administrative and student services personnel handle decisions about what classes should be offered.

As John H. Frye argued in The Vision of the Public Junior College, 1900-1940, the idea of the junior college/community college as a vocational school began from its very inception. The early leaders of the community college, in their mission to find the junior college’s place in higher education, sought to define it as a vocational school. Its transfer mission became secondary (at best). As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, their mission has reached fruition.

President Trump is simply pointing out what those in community colleges have known for a long time, and what those at four-year schools like the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point are finding out: All American “education” — except perhaps at the most elite universities and liberal arts colleges — has become “vocational” at its core.

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