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Editorial

What are community colleges for? Mass. must make up its mind

THE MASSACHUSETTS community college system tries to be all things to all students — offering career preparation, a transfer mechanism to four-year colleges, and a remediation workshop for poorly prepared high school graduates. The result of this too-broad approach is that it often falls short on all accounts.

A recent Boston Foundation report decried the “lack of focus’’ in the mission of the community college system. It pointed out funding flaws in a system where each of the 15 community colleges has its own line item in the state budget, but no rational funding formula. Decentralization is the rule here, and quality varies widely from one institution to the next.

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The governance and funding of the community college system does need to change. But first, state leaders must decide if the community colleges are akin to the junior colleges of old or a springboard to a productive career. The Boston Foundation report argues sensibly for the latter and points to other states that are succeeding at the task.

Virginia, for example, aligns community college courses with the needs of the state’s workforce, including customized training for business and industry. North Carolina community colleges embrace their roles as job trainers, literacy coaches, and adult education providers. Some community colleges in Massachusetts emphasize such workforce goals. Others, like Roxbury Community College, also cling fiercely to a more academic mission that aspires to move students on to four-year degrees. Yet graduation rates at these community colleges are low, and many students require remedial courses even to be eligible to take courses that allow them to earn college credit.

The community college system here isn’t working to its full potential, especially in an economy where competition for jobs is fierce.

Once state education officials determine that the goal of community colleges should be to prepare students for gainful employment, it will then be possible to centralize the budget, establish a disbursement formula, and even consolidate campuses. Until then, community colleges can only offer unpredictable and erratic routes to successful careers.

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