You might have heard the news that President Obama has announced a not-entirely-fleshed-out program to make community college free for all students who maintain a C average. Its main inspiration is the Tennessee Promise program, which Chicago recently borrowed from:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Chicago Star Scholarship program in October. On Friday, Emanuel said the city took a page from Tennessee's plan in developing the Star Scholarship, and that he had talked to people in the Obama administration about what Chicago was doing.

The Chicago Star Scholarship will cover tuition, fees and books at City Colleges of Chicago "pathway programs" for Chicago Public Schools grads who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average and are academically ready for college math and English courses.

The announcement reminded me of a fascinating detail from an interview I did awhile back that I never got to use in the piece I was working on.

I was talking to AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of the School of Information at Berkeley, about "industrial clusters" and how they form. Silicon Valley is currently the most famous one, but they're all over the place—Detroit is an industrial cluster of car companies, but so is West Michigan, with the august office-design companies Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Haworth all located within a reasonable drive of each other.

There are a lot of reasons these industrial clusters turn up; Saxenian, who teaches at Berkeley and studied at MIT, has had a front-row seat for the development of Silicon Valley and the (comparative) failure of the Route 128 technology corridor in the Boston area. One thing those areas have in common, obviously, is elite research universities, some of the greatest in the world.

But Saxenian attributed some of Silicon Valley's rise to the region's community colleges. Being more nimble than universities, community colleges could hire professionals to teach specific technical skills to other professionals seeking jobs or promotions in the highly competitive tech sector. As Saxenian writes in Regional Advantage:

[T]he region's six community colleges offered technical programs that were among the best in the nation. Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, for example, offered the nation's first two-year A.S. degree in semiconductor processing, and the mandate of Mission Community College in Santa Clara was to coordinate programs with the neighboring electronics complex. De Anza College in Cupertino similarly became known for its extensive electronics training programs and links with local firms.

The community colleges were particularly responsive to the needs of local businesses: they contracted with local companies to teach private courses for their employees, even holding courses at company plants to enable employees to attend after hours. Local technology firms in turn provided consultants to develop the electronics curricula as well as large numbers of part-time and moonlighting teachers. Many firms also contributed equipment to local schools, while some allowed community college students to use their equipment during the evenings.

As Haley Sweetland Edwards writes in The Washington Monthly, this was exactly how they were supposed to work:

Back in 1960, as part of California’s heady Master Plan for Higher Education, the community colleges were charged with the task of acting as a great equalizing force in the state. The idea was that, after high school, anyone could enroll in one of these ubiquitous, open-access institutions and either earn an associate’s degree or a vocational credential, or transfer to a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) (even more elite) campus. For decades, California’s three-tier system was the envy of the world, in no small part because of the pluralistic ethos embodied by the community college system—an equal-opportunity gateway to all higher education.

But as she goes on to detail, the state's community-college system is now struggling, the victim of mismanagement and substantial budget cuts.

Yet the target audience of employees and employers for community-college degrees remains similar throughout the country: "middle skills,"  such as computer engineering or radiation therapy, that can be taught quickly but offer a premium, at least in the medium term, over many bachelor's degrees:

The average wage for recent graduates of community colleges in Tennessee, for instance, is $38,948—more than $1,300 higher than the average wage for recent graduates from the state’s four-year institutions.

In Virginia, recent graduates of community-college occupational and technical degree programs make an average of $40,000. That’s almost $2,500 more than recent bachelor’s degree recipients.


What’s driving up the wages of community-college grads is that, in spite of persistent high unemployment, there is high demand for people with so-called “middle-skills” that often require no more than an associate’s degree, such as lab technicians, teachers in early-childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists.

In The Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg has a good piece about the significance of the program, addressing criticisms that the program shouldn't be universal, and should instead focus on the poor. Kahlenberg instead argues that "the high interest suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look."

Which in turn would increase political interest in the programs (depressing, but probably true) and perhaps lead to encouraging peer effects in the classroom. If Obama's community-college proposal encourages middle-class and wealthy parents to look at two-year programs, they might like what they find.