ODENWALD: What’s great about Michigan community colleges

Dr. Joe Odenwald is the president of Southwestern Michigan College.

America’s higher education landscape is complicated. There are many options at not-for-profit private colleges, public colleges and universities, for-profit colleges and universities and community colleges. I have worked as an administrator in three of these four categories, eventually finding my home serving at a community college.

One of the reasons I chose community college administration is that I am convinced the community college is “the institution for the 2020s.” Community college graduates, more so than those of the universities, remain and flourish in the communities which our campuses serve. They are the teachers, law enforcement officers and nurses we interact with daily.

As we grapple with rapid technological change, soaring college costs, shrinking public dollars and the need for a more educated citizenry and better-trained workforce, we are fortunate to have the American community college; it is a versatile, flexible institution poised to respond quickly to changing conditions.

The community college has often been referred to as the “People’s College,” the “Democracy College” and the “Opportunity College.” Community colleges are largely open-access, meaning that a student from any background can find a place to begin their educational journey.

Our colleges have all kinds of students: dual-enrolled high school students seeking to get a head start on college, traditional high school graduates who intend to ultimately transfer to a four-year college or university (the Michigan Transfer Agreement stipulates that students can transfer 30 credit hours from a community college to a state university), and adults returning to pursue a new career. 

Our colleges also offer vocational programs for students who are not interested in earning a four-year degree. These programs often lead to high-wage jobs in fields such as nursing and construction. The college I serve as president employs the motto, “Knowledge for All,” meaning we value all programs and students, whether they are technical or transfer in nature.

Michigan community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees. These officials run as non-partisan candidates. They serve for no pay and thus are focused on a college’s effectiveness and student success rather than some partisan issue.

Community colleges operate more efficiently than do state universities. If you add up the operating monies the 15 state universities received this past year, it totals nearly $1.5 billion for 282,000 students, or approximately $5,400 per student. If you add up the state aid and local property tax dollars the 28 community colleges received for operations this past year, it totals $879 million for 342,000 students or approximately $2,600 per student.

The average debt load of university graduates in Michigan is around $30,000. Almost paradoxically, the degree that was supposed to be the gateway to a better life instead leaves students shackled with a financial burden they’ll have to bear throughout much of early adulthood. At community colleges, tuition is roughly half the cost of state universities. This empowers students to start locally and transfer up to complete a bachelor’s degree, or to immediately pursue a fulfilling career while reducing debt in either case. For the taxpayer and the student alike, the community college is the best value.

I hope you can see how great our 28 Michigan community colleges are, and I urge you to consider how a community college might serve your educational interests or the interests of those you may know who are weighing their many educational options.