Getting America back on track

Changing the national conversation about college options may be the key to closing the skills gap

By Thomas J. Snyder, President

Ivy Tech Community College



When faced with a challenge as daunting as our nation’s skills gap, it’s tempting to believe the solution lies in broad, sweeping initiatives requiring significant investments of time and resources—and it’s true that there are few easy answers. However, one key to closing the gap may require little more than a simple shift in our thinking.


I’ve come to believe that one of the issues holding our nation back when it comes to workforce development is our somewhat incomplete understanding of the options students have after high school. We perceive it as a two-track system, with the choices being either immediate entry into the workforce or enrollment at a four-year residential college. This omits, of course, several worthy options—including the community college.


There’s a good reason why our vision is limited in this way: at one time, the two-track system was a reality. Everyone was assured the promise of a remunerative, fulfilling career, with those entering the workforce immediately after high school able to do very well, even if their earning potential wasn’t quite equal to that of most college graduates. Our workforce needs were also satisfied, since a high school diploma was an adequate prerequisite for many jobs. A two-track system was enough, in short, to get our economy where it needed to go.


Fast forward to 2012, and it becomes clear that the two-track system is nothing more than a memory—and a misleading one at that. The track from high school to the workforce has quite simply become a dead end as technology and other factors have led employers to require new skills. According to a recent report from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, for example, those with no education beyond a high school diploma lost 5.6 jobs from December of 2007 through December of 2009, the period generally believed to be the global recession. But even during the subsequent period of recovery, this same group lost an additional 230,000 jobs.


Does the end of a high school diploma as a viable start to a career, however, mean that the only trackremaining is a four-year college degree? Absolutely not. During the same period of recovery in which those with no education beyond a high school diploma lost 230,000 jobs, those with a two-year associate degree or some college experience gained 1.6 million jobs. It appears that reality has caught up with something long known by those at the community college: there is another way. The two-track system has been replaced by something much more complex, with many of the best opportunities existing somewhere between the high school diploma and the bachelor’s degree.


This realization comes at a critical time for our nation, because the community college also offers ready solutions to some of our greatest higher education challenges. For example:


  • Community colleges provide unmatched affordability at a time when higher education is drifting beyond the reach of most middle-class families. Consider that the average cost of a four-year residential college experience is $69,000, and the average annual household income is approximately $50,000. Is it any wonder that 2010 college graduates left school with an average debt of more than $25,000?
  • Community colleges provide “tracks” that are more reflective of today’s workforce needs. While our economy certainly benefits from having a workforce prepared with bachelor’s and advanced degrees, we also need workers equipped with the two-year associate degrees and short-term certificates that community colleges confer. In fact, these may actually be better options for many workers: in 2010-11, for example, those with an associate degree earned more those with a recent bachelor’s degree in 38 of 92 counties in my home state of Indiana.
  • The open-access community college model makes higher education accessible to a much broader population of individuals. We will not close the skills gap by restricting college enrollment to the few. The community college is our best chance of improving the skills of a critical mass of U.S. workers.


In Indiana, we are fortunate in that these attributes are well understood, and that Ivy Tech Community College is seen as integral to closing the skills gap. We have a seat at the table, working alongside other colleges to innovate across the higher education continuum. Our position, however, seems somewhat unique among American community colleges—and more the exception than the rule.


The reality is, we are still limiting ourselves to a two-track vision, and therefore limiting our possibilities. It’s time to insist that the community college becomes better represented in the national conversation, because the benefits inherent in doing so will be wide ranging. A more diverse population will see higher education as within their reach. More employment candidates will emerge, leading to greater economic growth. Our economy will benefit further from lower levels of student debt and higher earnings. Best of all, we will give middle class families hope for a brighter future even when the four-year residential college experience is impractical or out of their reach.


Getting America back on track begins with a new narrative about what’s available to our students after high school. Their future depends upon it—and so does ours.

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