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  • Nancy Ruther, EdD

An Injection of Funds: Community Colleges Build Back Better

Have you heard? The President of the United States released his new infrastructure plan, and community colleges would be set to receive an injection of funds! For an organization like Gazelle International that works intentionally with community colleges in the US, this is great news.

What do community colleges have to do with infrastructure, you ask? The White House explains, “Investing in community college facilities and technology helps protect the health and safety of students and faculty, address education deserts (particularly for rural communities), grow local economies, improve energy efficiency and resilience, and narrow funding inequities in the short-term, as we rebuild our higher education finance system for the long-run.” Of the two trillion dollars President Biden hopes to set aside for clean energy projects, road and bridge repairs, and more, is an investment of twelve billion dollars in community colleges’ physical and technological infrastructure needs.

In his recent article for Forbes, Wesley Whistle breaks down the importance and relevance of community colleges to the health of the nation in its journey toward economic recovery. According to Whistle, community colleges play a major role in training and retraining the workforce. They are an underappreciated contributor to the other goals of the infrastructure plan, as community colleges “prepare workers for the jobs that would be needed and created from an infrastructure investment,” says Whistle. An effective investment in infrastructure must be accompanied by an investment in community colleges!

Over a third of college students today attend community colleges; these campuses are often underfunded and they disproportionately serve low-income, first generation, and immigrant students (Whistle, Murphy). Community college campuses reflect the diversity of our country more faithfully than many other institutions, as they are often "the entry point for communities long marginalised in the United States," enrolling large numbers of Native American, Latinx, African American, and Asian/Pacific Islander students (Murphy).

An investment in community colleges is an investment in their students and all that they will do, both in the workforce and in their communities. Brian Murphy recently wrote of the agency, civil engagement, initiative, and resilience that community college students have shown during the pandemic. He first notes the institutions’ response: “At almost all community colleges, there was an immediate mobilisation on two fronts: communication and access.” More importantly, he emphasizes the resilience at the student level. Students pushed their campuses to support the student body through changes in grading, course withdrawals, and more. During the Black Lives Matter protests that began in the summer of 2020, students demanded better assistance and resources specifically for students of color. Murphy lauds students from several community colleges across the country who showed themselves to be community actors and activists.

Despite the tremendous value these students add to our local communities and nation, only 27% of the CARES Act resources for higher education went to community colleges, and states have had fewer and fewer funds to set aside for these campuses due to economic collapse (Murphy). With Biden’s proposed funds, states can help community colleges meet the rising demand for enrollment. They can identify and address access issues. They can support rural communities and place-bound students, and in doing so, ameliorate education deserts. Pouring money into campuses’ technological infrastructure needs is sure to help faculty provide higher quality education to more students with innovative pedagogies and tools at their fingertips.

President Joe Biden is also considering making community colleges tuition-free. Whistle details the potential impacts of this consideration. By looking at the examples set by the nineteen states that have some type of College Promise program, making up 350 programs in total across the country, these impacts include:

  • increases in enrollment, especially of first-time, full-time students

  • increases in the likelihood of degree attainment, especially of a bachelor’s degree, thus producing more college graduates for the workforce

  • a reduction in the number of students borrowing and the amount borrowed

President Biden’s commitment to invest in community college infrastructure and the possibility of making community college tuition-free could lead to significant economic benefits as the nation recovers from the pandemic and tries to “Build Back Better.”

What impacts are you hoping the President’s Infrastructure Plan has? How do you see an approved investment impacting your students? Where could we do more to “build back better”?

April 9, 2021


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