When Bob Kansa graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science almost 40 years ago, a surprise awaited him on his first day of work: He was unprepared for the job.
"The courses I took in college were not directly related to what I was doing on the job," says Kansa, now associate dean of IT at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. "I was asked to do some programming [that] I was totally unprepared for." Whereas the school taught console I/O for direct-access Fortran applications, for example, his job required file I/O. The college also taught regression and how to write an operating system boot loader -- skills that never came into play in all his years in the industry, he says.
With that experience lodged in his mind, he has worked for seven years to ensure that the same thing won't happen to computer science students pursuing associate's degrees and certification training at Macomb. "That's one of the challenges for community colleges in general," Kansa says. "We focus on the skills students need for a job versus engaging in an academic exercise."
A Changing Campus
At first glance, you may not recognize a community college these days. Now featuring dorms, honors programs, bachelor's degrees and more, these schools are evolving.
The construction of residential facilities represents one of the biggest changes. Some community colleges are building dorms in an effort to attract traditional-age students seeking lower tuition costs or an education close to home, says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online news source. Of the 1,100 colleges represented by the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 270 offer some on-campus housing, he says.
Community colleges are also adding honors programs, which are seen as recruitment tools for students who hope to someday apply to highly selective four-year institutions, Jaschik says. Last year, the National Collegiate Honors Council had 167 community colleges among its members; they accounted for more than 13% of the organization's membership, he points out.
A few community colleges even award bachelor's degrees. In the Florida College System, 14 of the 28 community colleges have the authority to offer at least one bachelor's program, Jaschik says. In these programs, students need to complete an associate's degree before they can begin studying for a bachelor's.
California is also discussing whether its community colleges should be allowed to offer selected bachelor's degrees.
And Kansa isn't the only one advocating alternatives to the traditional four-year-university path to an IT career. Technology education gurus such as Howard Rubin, professor emeritus of the City University of New York and president of Rubin Systems Inc., argue that for the U.S. to remain competitive in today's global and volatile economy, it needs to create a deep bench of perpetually cutting-edge technology professionals. To do that, Rubin envisions what he calls "proactive refresh institutions" that develop, adapt and augment technology capabilities more quickly and frequently -- and more in line with up-to-the-minute business needs -- than what is offered through a traditional four-year approach.
"The educational systems of the past can't respond," Rubin says. "There's so much more you can do with a two-year model to make people eligible to perform exceptionally well in a technology role. And the sooner they can get to the workplace and make decisions on future specialization, the better off they are."
Rubin is heartened to see community colleges developing programs designed to respond to market needs, such as those geared toward environmental technology and others focusing on health IT in response to the government's call for electronic health records. Miami Dade College in Florida, for example, has applied for two grants to develop curricula in cloud computing and health IT. Macomb has also applied for two grants -- one for coursework in electronic health records and another involving network design for health care providers. Macomb is also one of a growing number of community colleges that recently added a degree in computer game design to meet the needs of that fast-growing industry. The degree is supported by a new networking lab, just completed last fall, which is also used for the school's network administration and security curriculum.
Student Profile: Justin Wegleitner
* Degrees: Associate's and bachelor's in information technology, with a minor in business
* Colleges: Century College and Saint Mary's University of Minnesota
* Job status: Full-time network engineer
Justin Wegleitner didn't have to wait a long time between graduating from high school in 2005 and starting a full-time job as a network analyst in the summer of 2006. His fast-track ticket to employment: beginning work on an associate's degree in information and telecommunications technology at Century College during his final two years of high school.
But shortly after enrolling at Century full time, he knew his education wasn't complete. "I was thinking of getting just a two-year degree, but as I got further into the program, they basically explained that if you want to go on in the industry, you need the business background as well," he says.
And so, right after getting the associate's degree, Wegleitner went off to Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, where he was able to transfer all of his community college credits and obtain a bachelor of science in IT, with a business minor, in just two more years. When he graduated in 2008, he scored a new job as a network engineer at a consulting firm.
So far, he says, the four-year degree hasn't boosted his salary, but he feels confident that it will increase his upward mobility. His current goal is to move toward a Level 2 network engineer position, and he ultimately sees himself growing into a project manager or CTO role. He is working on Cisco Certified Voice Professional certification and is considering going for a master's degree in some aspect of business management.
The advantage of obtaining an associate's degree before moving toward a bachelor's, he says, is that Century was "very, very hands-on. You got to see the real-world experience of what an entry- or midlevel person would be dealing with."
The school also prepared him well for obtaining the bachelor's degree, Wegleitner says. For instance, the coursework provided a taste of what project management entailed. "They left it that way so you understood what it would be like in the real world," he says.
Meanwhile, Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) used a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to renovate a 10-year-old computer lab and provide a one-to-one ratio of students and computers, and it added courses in hot areas such as open source, virtualization and VoIP. And Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., has revamped its entire degree program to make it more relevant to the needs of today's IT professionals.
Century now offers students an introductory course that provides an overview of IT career paths and then requires them to choose one of three tracks: storage-area networks, security or VoIP. "IT is way too complex to prepare people to be generalists," says Scott Simenson, director of information and telecommunications technology at Century. The degrees also include business skills development, in response to suggestions from an advisory board made up of local business leaders, and students can obtain popular industry certifications. "It's more strategic than supporting the desktop connection to the printer," Simenson says. All of this is supported by a $5.5 million computer lab.
In addition, Century's Digital Fabrication Lab supports the creation of innovative solutions to common scientific and technical issues through industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools.
Community colleges also work closely with vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to develop coursework that mirrors their certification requirements or even to become a Cisco Networking Academy or Microsoft IT Academy, which enables the schools to purchase systems for their computer labs at deep discounts. They also work with businesses to share computing resources, through virtual links or directly.
The Labor Pipeline
Community colleges are particularly in the spotlight these days. The Obama administration pledged last summer to inject $12 billion in funding to community colleges over 10 years through the American Graduation Initiative, which was announced on Macomb's campus in July 2009. The money will fund a variety of initiatives, such as competitive grants to expand course offerings, build business partnerships and offer personalized student services, performance-based scholarships and online courses. An additional $2.5 billion will go toward facilities. President Obama also called on community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020.
Student Profile: Andrew Hrycaj
* Degree: Pursuing an associate's degree
* College: Macomb Community College
* Job status: Full-time network consultant
When Andrew Hrycaj graduated from high school in 2004, he enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit but quickly decided it wasn't for him. Classes were large, it was difficult to ask questions of the professors, "and basically, you were just a seat number," he says.
Hrycaj has had the opposite experience at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. Not only do classes have fewer than 30 students, but the teachers are readily available, and the coursework has enabled him to earn several industry certifications, including Cisco Certified Network Associate and Cisco Certified Design Associate. Through it all, he has worked full time, first as a network administrator and now as a network consultant, while pursuing an associate's degree. Ultimately, he plans to earn a bachelor's degree at a four-year university in Michigan. "Companies like to see you're at least pursuing a bachelor's as fast as you can," he says, especially for management or senior engineer positions.
Hrycaj says the community college approach let him focus on what interested him right away instead of requiring him to load his schedule with general, non-IT courses the first two years and then specialize later, as many bachelor's programs do. Although he has taken some biology, English, math and government classes, he says, "I like the idea of getting to know who you are and what you like to do and being able to pursue that."
So far, Hrycaj has attended classes on campus, although he could study online if he wanted to. "I enjoy the atmosphere," he says. "And I like interfacing with the teachers and having them right there versus being an e-mail away."
In the future, Hrycaj sees himself working as a consultant for 10 to 15 years and then moving toward a senior network engineer role.
Best of all, he won't have to deal with the hassle of obtaining and paying back loans, even when he's pursuing his bachelor's. "It's a nice feeling to know I'll be able to make a name and reputation for myself and not worry about gigantic loans," he says. "As long as you know your stuff, you can feel you'll always find a job, even in Michigan."
Such an investment is crucial, Obama says, because in the coming years, the number of jobs requiring at least an associate's degree is projected to grow twice as fast as the number of jobs requiring no college experience. "We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges," he said at the American Graduation Initiative announcement. The initiative is currently awaiting Senate approval.
"We're seeing a much more serious commitment from this administration than we've ever seen before," says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online news source. And that's a good thing, says Richard White, director of the School of Computer and Engineering Technologies at Miami Dade. Funds are needed to improve counseling services and to enhance developmental education. "We get the full gamut of people, from honors students transferring to top universities, to students not fully prepared to enter college," he says.
Bursting at the Seams
But the real interest in community colleges is among students themselves. With skyrocketing tuitions and an uncertain economy, more high school graduates are attracted by the fact that community colleges are far less expensive than four-year institutions. According to American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), enrollment was up 11.4% in 2009, with the percentage gain in full-time students more than twice that of part-timers. Today, community colleges account for 44% of all U.S. undergraduates, including both part- and full-time students.
Two years ago at SCCC, there were about 120 computer science students, says Lisa Sandoval, who manages the Seattle school's Web design, Web development, database programming and network design programs. Today, that number has risen to 230 in her programs alone, which don't include the application support and business IT programs.
Meanwhile, Miami Dade has had a 17% increase in its IT and engineering enrollment and, for the first time, has had to cap the number of sessions it offers. Century's IT classes are full, and Macomb is "maxed out in terms of the numbers of students we can accommodate," Kansa says.
At Miami Dade, the average age for IT students is 26, meaning that many are in retraining mode, although there are a significant number of recent graduates from local high schools as well, White says. Located in a county with an unemployment rate of 17%, Macomb is also enrolling a large number of displaced workers. But the fastest-growing group is traditional college-age students who are happy to pay the school's $72 per credit-hour rather than a four-year state school's $350 per credit-hour, Kansa says.
The enrollment boom is causing real problems for community colleges, which traditionally have been open-access institutions that don't turn students away. Century has run out of classrooms, Macomb has scheduled classes on weekends, and according to Jaschik, some colleges have begun offering midnight or 7 a.m. classes. Despite such measures, an AACC survey showed that 34.2% of the group's member institutions turned away potential students last fall because they couldn't accommodate them.
Another difficulty is that community colleges must serve more students with less federal funding than their four-year counterparts. While budget cuts have hit all higher-education institutions, community colleges get just one-fourth the level of funding that public schools do for a full-time equivalent. "We're carrying 15,000 additional students basically with no additional funding," White says. "At some point, it's going to become very problematic."
Students who do enroll in community college IT programs can have a high degree of confidence that coursework has been vetted by advisory committees that include local industry leaders.
"We're able to keep our thumb on the pulse of the industry and offer special courses on any emerging technology that changes from quarter to quarter," Sandoval says. An example is a recent course offered in Ruby on Rails, she says, as well as workshops SCCC will hold this year on open-source technologies.
"We cater to what our local industries tell us they need," White agrees. Miami Dade also added courses on open source, has set up some virtual servers in its lab and recently updated its computer support degree to emphasize networking and equipment connectivity rather than desktop support.
Century also consults with an advisory committee that includes local businesses interested in hiring its graduates, including several large insurance and financial firms and medical institutions. Because those industries have huge storage and backup needs and have to address business continuity concerns, Simenson decided to add a SAN track to the IT degree program, as well as some courses on business skills. "We used to be pretty focused on the nuts and bolts of IT, but that's not enough to adequately prepare someone for the technology profession," he says.
A four-year university might argue that teaching computer science concepts provides students with a foundation to learn new things more quickly throughout their IT careers. But community colleges say their practical approach produces graduates who are better prepared to enter the workforce, even if their ultimate goal is to achieve a four-year degree.
Indeed, Kansa says, while smaller companies are open to hiring people with associate's degrees, larger companies often won't touch anyone who doesn't hold a four-year degree.
Simenson agrees. Although many students leave Century and go straight into industry, he says, "we strongly encourage people to get a four-year degree." To that end, Century works closely with students to help them develop educational and career plans.
With burgeoning enrollment and federal attention, it's clear that the role of the community college is evolving. But for some of these schools, the spotlight is shining on work they've always done. Says White, "We're seeing renewed interest at the federal level in programming we've been offering all along."
Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "Community College Surge: IT education on a budget" was originally published by Computerworld.