OPINION: Community colleges cannot be overlooked

During a speech for construction apprentices at an Ohio training facility last Thursday, President Donald Trump exposed his ignorance about the integral role that community colleges have played in broadening access to higher education. “We do not know what a ‘community college’ means,” he said. Trump has since been blasted in the media for the glaring gaps in his knowledge, and rightfully so.

Di Wu | Daily Trojan

The president should learn what a community college is — and quickly — before he advocates for an increase in vocational schools at the expense of community colleges.  The diminishing numbers of community colleges could disrupt higher education’s ability to close gaps in economic disparities, and in this sense, it would fundamentally upset higher education’s proper functioning. This could especially affect USC.

It’s ironic, then, that much of the motivation behind Trump’s steadfast support for vocational schools — which often prepare workers for infrastructure jobs — most likely stems from his early promises to revive sectors of the U.S. economy that would benefit from larger numbers of vocational graduates. If Trump really wanted to bring job security and prosperity to future generations of Americans — as he repeatedly claims to — then he would acknowledge the role that community colleges play in building a more equitable economy.

According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, during the 2015-16 academic year, 49 percent of students who obtained a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college had, at some point in the preceding 10 years, enrolled at a two-year public institution. Among students identified as low-income (those with a family income under $25,000 annually), 44 percent attended community college as their initial post-graduate schooling and, among first-generation students, 38 percent attended community college for their first institution in that academic year.

Further, community colleges accept all applicants, granting a recognizable path to a four-year institution for students who lack the resources to attend four-year colleges immediately after high school. Additionally, the relatively low tuition of community colleges, which usually costs less than what a federal Pell Grant can provide, renders community colleges an accessible gateway for students who lack the means to attend a four-year institution immediately after high school graduation. Even for those who do not continue on to four-year colleges, community colleges usually offer associate’s degrees, which are becoming increasingly necessary in an economy that is calling for post-high school training for more and more of its jobs.

As such, investment in the community college system is not just an investment in U.S. higher education; it’s also an investment in increasing access to it. This is true at USC more so than at almost any other private, four-year university.

In Fall 2017, USC admitted 2,150 transfer students and around half of them transferred from a California community college. In contrast, Princeton hasn’t accepted a transfer student since 1990. In 2014, Harvard admitted 12 transfer students in total; Yale and Stanford both admitted 29; and Georgetown, despite being known for its transfer acceptance rates, still admitted just 148. It’s unlikely that any of these students came from Santa Monica College or the like; Harvard’s transfer eligibility guidelines, for instance, are seeped in rhetoric that does not extend a very welcoming invitation to students from first-year institutions that are not, well, like Harvard.

Consequently, USC’s high percentage of transfer students represents a commitment to supporting community college students — and it’s a commitment that cannot wane under Trump’s rhetorical attacks on them, especially considering the lack of nationwide support at other elite private institutions for community college students. To combat the shrouded venom of Trump’s recent comments concerning community colleges and the potential budget cuts that his words may predate, USC must continue to be as unwavering in its high enrollment rates of community college students as it has been for the past decade.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, USC began its current levels of recruitment from community colleges 10 years ago, after University President C. L. Max Nikias sought to rectify the findings of a 2006 study that reported that fewer than 1 in 1,000 students at the country’s top private schools were community college transfers. It’s heartening to see that at least one president understands the benefits of community colleges.