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Business Officer Magazine

Is America Ready for Community Colleges to Lead the Way?

With the student debt crisis high on the public’s radar, a community college president suggests a way to make higher education affordable for all.

By Thomas J. Snyder

I recently read a news story about Nicole Ferko, who entered college in the late 1990s aspiring to become a nun. When she graduated in 2002, however, she was too burdened with loan debt to realize her dream. As a result, she had to delay her plans by nearly a decade and incur significant credit card debt in order to pay back her student loans.

Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference, aptly summed up the plight of those like Ferko: "We have to turn people away," Brother Bednarczyk said, "because they're too poor to take the vow of poverty."

Today, throughout America, many recent college graduates find themselves in the same position as Ferko, with their dreams deferred—or perhaps dashed altogether—because of student loan debt. College seniors who graduated in 2010, for example, left school with an average debt of more than $25,000.

This would be daunting enough in a healthy economic climate, but it's creating a national crisis at a time when good jobs are hard to find. In fact, according to a new study by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 6 in 10 college students who incur debt do not secure the quality employment they need to pay their loans. As the center's Cliff Zukin says about today's college graduates, "More come out with debt than come out with jobs."

Preserving the Dream

Facts like these lead to one indisputable conclusion: Something has to change. A college education has always been part of the American dream, but student debt is threatening to put higher education out of reach for all but a fortunate few.

There is some good news in all this, however. First, after years of growing anxiety, student loan debt is finally getting the attention it deserves. Leaders in government, business, and education are finally taking action designed to provide families with some relief.

In addition, an institution once marginalized is now being recognized for making higher education affordable for all. That institution is the American community college. In researching my soon-to-be-released book, The Community College Career Track: How to Achieve the American Dream Without a Mountain of Debt (Wiley, 2012), I spoke with dozens of students who represent all that is great about a community college education. They are in fulfilling careers, earning enough to support their families, with little-to-no college debt holding them back. They're succeeding because community colleges work with businesses to identify the skills employers need, which ensures that students have marketable, relevant skills upon graduation.

No Compromises

This requires some compromises, of course—but not the ones you might imagine. At Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, we're doing everything we can to create efficiencies and limit spending so we can keep college affordable. Our tuition cost remains below $3,500 per year because our faculty and staff are committed to doing more with less in order to take the burden off our students' shoulders. We refuse to compromise, however, when it comes to quality. Our graduates' success is proof that a great education can be affordable and accessible for everyone.

Community colleges are not the perfect solution for every family, of course, but in a time of economic uncertainty and mounting student debt, we are becoming more relevant than ever before. It's time to recognize that there is a way out of our student loan debt crisis. It will require the support of federal, state and local governments, who must see the unmatched return on investment community colleges provide. It will also require the support of businesses who, in order to compete in today's global economy, need employees trained with the skills taught at community colleges. Most of all, it will require that we begin to think differently about higher education.

Community colleges are ready to move America forward. The question is, is America ready to let community colleges lead the way?

THOMAS J. SNYDER is chief executive officer and president, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.