Why we need community colleges

June 19, 2018

At a White House forum this spring, President Donald Trump indicated that he was confused by the term “community colleges.” The president’s remarks included, “So we need vocational schools. Now, they call them, a lot of times, community colleges. I don’t think it’s an accurate definition.”

It is understandable why America’s highest political officer may be confused as America’s community colleges are often misunderstood by those who may not use them or do not comprehend why they were originated. George Santayana, a 20th century philosopher and poet, once stated, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

And so it goes with taking time to understand why community colleges were created in the first place.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman commissioned a task force to create a place in higher education that is accessible and affordable for all Americans.

But, actually, these colleges were in existence well before 1947. Community colleges in America were originally known as junior colleges and have their origins with the Morrill Act of 1862, which allowed Americans expanded access to public higher education. Joliet Junior College in Illinois was the first junior college to open its doors in 1901. Twenty-seven years later, Norfolk Junior College began operations and is now known as Northeast.

As Northeast developed, the Nebraska Legislature decided to merge all of its technical and junior colleges into six massive service areas now known as the Nebraska Community College System. The Legislature also broadened what these merged institutions were responsible to do on behalf of all Nebraska citizens. The four legislated tenets of technical education, academic transfer education, continuing and customized training, and applied research became the mantra for this relatively new sector of higher education.

I am not certain if President Truman fully understood where his appointed commission would take America with affordable and accessible higher education. But the end result is phenomenal from academic transfer, to high skills development, to remedial education, to customized training for business and industry, to giving immigrants an opportunity to learn to speak English … and the list goes on.

Northeast and this nation’s approximately 1,100 community colleges have educated countless millions of Americans who have had the wonderful opportunity to receive an education through these institutions.

I understand and appreciate why President Trump is confused as he may not be keenly aware of why America’s community colleges were established in the first place. America’s community colleges are largely misunderstood by those who may not have conducted research as to why they exist and about the broad-based responsibility given to serve so many sectors of the American population.

Northeast Community College is so much more than an academic transfer or technical institution. It is key in creating high value through increasing economic opportunities across our 20-county service area and beyond. No matter what we are named, Northeast and America’s community colleges do incredible work with all sectors of the population.

We are the boots on the ground, the good neighbor, the one who is there when you need us most.