Wicker Touts Importance of Community College System

February 18, 2008

Community college presidents, educators, and trustees from across the nation come to Washington each year.  They converge on Capitol Hill to talk about issues affecting their institutions and share initiatives they are undertaking to strengthen education and economic development activities.   I had an opportunity to visit with the group last week in my new capacity as co-chair of the Community College Caucus in the U.S. Senate. 

I have always been a strong supporter and advocate for the community college system, and I was honored to serve as co-chair of the Caucus as a member of the House of Representatives.   The Caucus was formed in 2006 to help highlight the important role community colleges play in our educational system and address issues and challenges important to their continued success.   Our group is bipartisan, and its members come from every region of the United States.

                                         STRONG TRADITION IN MISSISSIPPI
Mississippi’s 15-member community college system was well represented at the Washington gathering.   From the Gulf Coast to metropolitan Jackson to the Delta to North Mississippi, these schools and their leaders are helping create new opportunities for our citizens to improve the lives.  I noted in my remarks to the group that it was fitting that a Mississippian should serve as Caucus co-chair because our state was the first in the nation to create a statewide system of junior colleges.  That was back in 1922.

These institutions have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and meet the changing educational needs of the people they serve.  In addition to providing an affordable means for recent high school graduates to study close to home, community colleges have a much broader mandate today.   They offer opportunities for non-traditional students seeking to earn a high school diploma or learn new skills to prepare for a career change.  Adult education classes and programs to enhance professional development are also popular.

                                      ASSISTING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Another key mission undertaken in recent years by our community colleges has been to partner with local leaders on economic development activities.   These institutions have the flexibility to create specialized programs to help new industries train employees and assist existing companies in meeting new challenges in the workplace.

When economic development officials and industrial leaders announce that a major manufacturing facility has chosen Mississippi as its new home, it is a good bet that community colleges in the area have had a hand in closing the deal.

                               TRAINING HEALTH WORKERS, FIRST RESPONDERS
Community colleges have also become increasingly important in the training of U.S. health care workers.  Today more than 50 percent of that workforce acquires their special skills at these institutions.   The percentage is even greater with regard to assistance provided to firefighters and law enforcement officers.  Nearly 80 percent of workers in those professions are now receiving credentials through programs on these campuses.                                                                                                       

The Pell Grant and Perkins Act programs continue to play integral roles in the success of our community colleges.  Pell Grants help more than two million financially disadvantaged students pay for education expenses each year, while Perkins Act programs remain the largest federal source of support for workforce development programs at community colleges.

While serving in the House, I served on the subcommittee that oversaw spending on these important programs.  I was proud to support increased funding for them then, and I look forward to continuing to do so in the Senate.    

For more than 85 years, Mississippi community colleges have been effective in preparing students for a brighter future.   They are among 1,157 public and private institutions across the country, serving more than 12 million Americans.  Our bipartisan Community College Caucus is committed to helping them continue to excel in meeting this important mission.