Community college can be students’ first choice. And for many students, community or technical college should be Plan A; not because those students are less academically capable than their four-year college going classmates, but because their career interests are better aligned with career and technical programs and credentials offered at community and technical colleges. For too long, parents, teachers, and school counselors have sold community college only as the option for students who struggle academically, or who come from families without the financial resources to make four-year college a first choice right out of high school. While both of those reasons are valid for considering community college, those are not the only reasons.
As high school students consider postsecondary education and career options, they should think seriously about jobs and careers they feel most drawn to, the kinds of careers they believe they can find happiness in, and where they believe their strengths to be. As well, students should make use of available data when making postsecondary education and training decisions. What data? Data about the employment and earnings outcomes for academic majors and certificate programs they are considering. Students should know whether or not those who have completed such programs were able to find employment in their field. Students should also know in very concrete terms what the earnings are for completers of programs they are considering. Students should not have to guess about whether program completers find jobs within their field and how much they earn.
As thoughtful and informed young people going through this exercise, I am confident that many students will consider community college as a first choice; not based on their academic abilities or deficiencies, but because programs offered at community colleges are best suited to get them into the jobs and careers that interest them. Enrolling in programs at the local community college does not mean that a student is not cut out for four-year college, or that s/he could not have made it academically at a four-year college. Enrolling at the community college is a choice; and quite honestly, it’s a choice that not nearly enough high school graduates are making. As a nation, our failure to enroll larger numbers of high school graduates at community and technical colleges is crippling our economy. We are not producing nearly enough workers with the skills that many American employers need. I’m talking primarily about middle-skill jobs.
Middle-skill jobs are those that require education and training greater than a high school diploma but less education than a bachelor’s degree. Middle-skill jobs make up the largest part of America’s and Kentucky’s labor market. According to the National Skills Coalition, between 2010 and 2012, 54% of job openings in Kentucky will be for middle-skill jobs. But Kentucky has a pretty significant middle-skill gap. While middle-skill jobs account for 58% of Kentucky’s labor market, only 48% of Kentucky’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level. That’s a significant difference from what we see at the high-skill and low-skill job levels. Kentucky’s high-skill and low-skill workers outnumber the high-skill and low-skill jobs available. There is tremendous opportunity, however, for workers at the middle-skill level. And these are good-paying jobs. Truth be told, many workers at the middle-skill level have earnings that surpass those of workers at the high-skill level.
So regardless of whether students are academic stars or need a little extra help, I advise all students to take a look at the programs their community and technical colleges have to offer. Not only is there tremendous career training opportunity there, but it might just be the place where they find their passion.