The Community Connection

Community colleges will play critical role in post-COVID rebuild

- By Dr. Victoria L. Bastecki-Perez Dr. Victoria L. Bastecki-Perez is the president of Montgomery County Community College.

With COVID-19 vaccine distributi­on underway across the region, the Greater Philadelph­ia area is set to begin a period of recovery, reconnecti­on and rebuilding.

With the end of the pandemic in sight, there’s one type of institutio­n that has been persistent­ly overlooked for its ability to provide a better life for our region’s citizens — community colleges.

Considerin­g their ability to prepare our area’s workers for an economic rebuild with new skills and new opportunit­ies, the time has come to increase public access. Other states are leveraging the expertise of their community colleges to revitalize their economies in a post-COVID world, seeing the valuable role they serve.

Doing so will create a faster path to economic recovery by quickly building a new talent pool of skilled workers and getting our region’s citizens back to work. There are countless high-paying jobs available to students with two-year associate’s degrees. Web developers, air traffic controller­s, computer network support specialist­s, nurses, MRI technologi­sts, and radiation therapists, along with dozens of others, are just a few of the careers that require associate’s degrees and provide median salaries of over $60,000. This list is constantly growing.

Even before the pandemic, employers were hiring more community college graduates than ever before. In the last six months of 2019, the number of employed Americans with an associate’s degree rose by 578,000 people, compared to just 314,000 Americans with a four-year degree. This trend will continue as experts predict demand for STEM, technology support, and health and wellness profession­als grows after the pandemic.

Community colleges also have close connection­s to local employers, job placement programs, internship initiative­s, and other programs to set up students with successful careers right here at home, right away. With the economy and employment landscape shifting, community colleges are nimble enough to respond to the needs of local businesses and provide students with opportunit­ies to learn new skills fit for a 21st century, post-COVID-19 economy.

With money tight for many of our region’s citizens, community colleges offer a much more affordable path to education and employment. Yearly tuition and fees at public two-year colleges cost on average $3,440, compared to $32,410 at a private four-year university. Community colleges allow students to stay closer to home, which cuts down on overall room and board and travel-related expenses.

Students also largely are spared from taking on burdensome financial debt, which can derail their plans to buy homes, start families or become entreprene­urs later in life. State government funding is key to keeping tuition rates low.

For those with the goal of eventually earning their bachelor’s degree, that option remains open for community college students. The quality of education at community colleges is extremely high and transferri­ng to fouryear colleges is simple and easy. However, the many that choose not to are also well positioned for success.

As the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close, we must focus on closing the wage gap, filling open jobs, and getting people back on their feet. The evolving economic landscape will require workers to quickly and affordably adapt and learn new skills. This is no small feat, but community colleges are perfectly suited to help our citizens achieve it.

To realize these benefits, we must call on state lawmakers to recognize the powerful impact of these critical educationa­l institutio­ns and embrace their crucial role in our region’s recovery.

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Victoria BasteckiPe­rez

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