Why Washington Needs a Community College

Our nation’s capital needs a resource that every large city except Washington has: a community college. Community colleges provide training for “middle skill” jobs — those that require less than a four-year degree but more than a high school diploma. They launch students into four-year programs, work closely with regional employers to help them prepare and retain skilled and qualified workers, and offer accessible, affordable courses for adults who need to enhance their job skills. Community colleges thrive in the Washington suburbs — Northern Virginia Community College, Montgomery College and Prince George’s Community College are vibrant institutions — but they have no counterpart in the District.

Tens of thousands of jobs were added to the D.C. economy over the past decade. Construction cranes and bustling new commercial and residential centers all speak to the renaissance of Washington. But for too many D.C. residents, this newly pulsating capital city has brought little opportunity. Less than a third of District jobs are held by District residents. One in three working families in the District is poor. And when many new jobs demand specialized training, more than 100,000 District residents have no post-secondary education at all. Indeed, more than 30 percent of adults in the District function at the lowest levels of literacy.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s focus on improving the District’s public schools is a crucial response to these sobering facts, but a community college is equally important. Washington’s only public institution of higher education, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), offers some two-year degrees and occupational certificate programs mixed in with its four-year curriculum. But UDC has never focused on the community college mission or created a full set of community college courses, lest doing so jeopardize its aspirations to become a respected four-year and graduate institution. Other states recognize that community colleges and universities fulfill different functions and do not ask the same educational leaders to perform both. UDC would be a stronger, more focused university if it were not saddled with the muddled mission of doubling as a community college.

Local leaders from business, government and academia gathered recently to consider options for creating a D.C. community college. Three options laid out in a Brookings Institution paper included creating a separate community college within UDC, establishing a free-standing community college (perhaps incubated by an existing institution) and creating a venue in the city where a variety of institutions would offer community college courses. The group was enthusiastic about developing a community college proposal that could be implemented. Members of the local foundation community generously pledged to help fund a feasibility study to examine the costs and benefits of growing a community college in the nation’s capital. The momentum for such an institution is building.

Creating a community college in the District will be neither simple nor inexpensive. But the tangible benefits of a pathway to better jobs for working families and underemployed individuals are tremendous. City residents with good jobs produce more tax revenue and seek fewer social services. Higher employment levels would probably reduce crime and substance abuse. Furthermore, community college training for parents could improve the performance of many D.C. public school students.

The District has already paid a steep price for failing to establish a community college, including undermining UDC’s focus on the mission of producing top-quality baccalaureate and graduate school programs. Joining the ranks of every other major city that provides community college opportunities would demonstrate true commitment to building a nation’s capital we can all be proud of.