Community Colleges Helping to Meet STEM Demand

Adults faced with retraining for careers, especially in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and math, are more frequently heading to community colleges, writes Cherise Lesesne in Diverse. These two-year degree programs are sought not only by high school graduates, but also by many who already have university credits and degrees.

It's the result of a far-thinking design approach by the community colleges, Lesesne explains. Many of them have designed practical career-training programs that quickly lead students into proficiency with tech skills they need for work. Although they offer general humanities courses, most community colleges have specialized in medical, industrial and other engineering-related programs. Called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, these certificate courses are drawing far beyond the community college's usual base of students.

According to the National Post Secondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), 8 percent of students entering community college already completed some form of higher education, whether they received a bachelor's, master's or sometimes even a doctoral degree. In the study, NSPAS estimated that approximately 849,000 students received associate degrees during the 2009-2010 academic year, which is a 50.4 percent increase from the last 10 years. Among the rising numbers of associate degrees awarded, there was a 105 percent increase in STEM-related fields during the same academic period.

The key reasons are cost, networking ties and industry-experienced faculty. Community colleges, though underfunded compared with public universities, have kept their credit costs down to what people can afford. Instead of hovering between $500 and $1000 per credit hour, two-year degree credit is generally much lower, even as low as below $100 per credit hour for residents. Adults who work can afford to chip away at degrees, and college graduates who find themselves unemployed can afford to pay the tuition without adding massively to their existing college loans.

Even more, community colleges offer many close ties to local employers. People who have degrees but cannot find work may find it a wiser idea to attend locally where they will go directly to work.

Mullins explained that a large majority of students seeking advanced training in STEM careers have found community colleges advantageous, especially in the networks that they have gained from the school's direct links to local employers. "By having connections within local industries, it helps to make sure our programs are in line with employer expectations, especially since education is a large part of employment," Mullins said.

Whereas many university professors have never worked in an industrial field, community college teachers are often working in industry while teaching. They know what the fields require because they are working nurses, factory managers, or engineers.

"The main mission of community colleges has always been centered around teaching, particularly teaching students what job skills are needed within their communities. So, having these industry experts provides students with a window into the industry, while also allowing those already employed students to refresh their skills within the industry" Carter noted.

Increasing student proficiency in the STEM subjects was discussed as a national goal the recent White House Science Fair. A presidential advisory council estimated that the United States will need an additional one million workers who are skilled in some area of the STEM fields. A recently released Gallup/Lumina poll showed that many people are aware of this need, and that many adults want to return to school for additional certification and training.

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