Riverland President's Column--November 2010

Release Date: November 3, 2010

Community Colleges: A proven Return on Investment in economically challenged times

Dr. Terry Leas
Dr. Terry Leas

Historically, the United States has made long-term investments in higher education because workforce development is economic development. Recently, because of financial challenges, our nation has neglected long?term investment in education that generates high economic output and stable jobs.

When policymakers cut funding to higher education, they risk undermining the infrastructure of economic development. Thus, policymakers – both locally and nationally – would do well to re?set priorities toward revitalizing public higher education to drive economic recovery now and to ensure economic prosperity in the future.

Other nations are investing more in higher education, with an emphasis on greater creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Such investments are what made our country the dominant economic and military power in the 50 years following World War II. We invented the model and should continue to invest in it if we want to continue to receive its benefits.

No institution better reflects American democracy, ingenuity and innovation than community colleges. Uniquely American, more than 1,200 community colleges serve virtually every community in our nation, enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, and power economic activity that changes lives and communities every day.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, two-year colleges contribute more than $35 billion annually to our nation’s economic growth – representing seven percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Community colleges have added more than $620 billion to the current economy, representing roughly six percent of the nation’s average annual growth.

The Return on Investment is impressive: community colleges return an average of three dollars to the public for every dollar invested. Community colleges help to sustain the entrepreneurial lifeblood that so many midsized and small communities depend upon, fueling increased job creation. Half of college-going adults who are 50 or older enroll in community colleges. Along with economic health, community colleges safeguard the security and well?being of our communities, credentialing 80 percent of the nation’s first responders and preparing more than 60 percent of health care professionals nationally.

Continued stellar results are in jeopardy, however. Enrollments skyrocket as students seek affordable education and training, but state and local funding continues to decline. Ironically, the negative economic spiral they are designed to prevent victimizes community colleges. If funding for the nation’s community colleges were curtailed, 10 percent of the workforce would lose access to critical education and training opportunities.

In 2009, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors wrote, "In many respects, community colleges are the epicenter of the U.S. post-high school education and training system… they can be nimble allies of employers and other workforce partners in providing customized training that is specific to the needs of a particular employer or industry."

As we all work to put America’s economic house in order, re?investing in community colleges represents an intelligent and responsible step that every policymaker can take during the upcoming legislative session. The return on investment is both proven and compelling, and Riverland remains committed to providing the best value in education and workforce development.