Some years ago, it used to be that when someone said they were attending community college, the all-too-common assumption was that this poor soul simply didn’t possess the intelligence required to attend a ‘real’ college or university. Community colleges were essentially the stepchild of higher education; a step above high school but not quite college material.
Things have changed. And Dr. Curtis Ivery, Chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District, has quite a bit to do with that. When he began as chancellor, WCCCD was on the brink of disaster with only 6,000 students enrolled throughout the entire district and a financial outlook that was bleak at best. The beleaguered institution had the worst funding of any community college in the state. Today, the district is educating more than 70,000 students and it is the fastest growing community college district in the nation.
“We’ve been the fastest growing for at least the past 10 years. And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ivery. “If we really tap into the community we should be reaching, what I call the underserved population, we’re gonna just knock the top off this thing because what we do is just so important.”
The story of how Dr. Ivery strategically transformed WCCCD into the model of success that it is today is inspiring, but what may be the real story is how, through WCCCD’s success, he has managed to help transform the negative image of community colleges and, in the process, refocus the dialogue on education prompting a reconsideration of the practical benefits of a community college education.
For example, Ivery says that 98 percent of WCCCD graduates find jobs upon graduation. In fact, a fair number of students have jobs waiting for them before they have even walked the stage simply because many employers already know that the training students receive at WCCCD is precisely the kind of training needed to get the job done. This is due in large part to the partnerships that WCCCD has forged with many employers to help train their future workforce. WCCCD also has the highest rated first responder training education in the country.
“They’re taking them before they even get their degrees,” he said.
What is significant about this is that most mainstream colleges and universities don’t come anywhere near placing 98 percent of their graduates into jobs. The debate, of course, centers around the purpose of education; is it to provide companies with well-trained employees or is it to provide individuals with a higher level of education that not only teaches them critical thinking skills but helps develop them into more well-rounded ‘citizens of the world’? Even Dr. Ivery is quick to concede his strong belief in the importance of a liberal arts education. A familiarity with the works of Shakespeare might not get you a job, but it will certainly broaden your mind, and there is an undeniable value in an expanded mind that cannot necessarily be quantified simply by employment statistics.
But even the well-educated need to pay the bills. And in a city like Detroit, which remains a victim of chronic unemployment even as joyful stories of the city’s rebirth continue to dominate the headlines, a good-paying job is literally money in the bank. It is also an invaluable survival tool that can make such a difference in the lives of young black men and women who continue to struggle against barriers that their parents – and grandparents – thought would have been receding far into the rear view mirror by now.
“Give me one large urban center that has it right. …There are a lot of social constructs and barriers we’re not willing to address. We just need to deal with that elephant in the room. So let’s talk about urban schools; what were we talking about 20 years ago? What were we talking about 30 years ago? 40 years ago? We were talking about intensely segregated schools. And we had all kinds of legislation; Brown v Board of education, all other kinds of legislation that dealt with the busing issue, to integrate the schools, right? Because we felt that would be the answer. That was the panacea. What do we have now? We have schools that are largely segregated as they were when I was in grade school. And I don’t wanna tell you how many years ago that was.
“So the issues are there. We know what they are. I don’t think we’ve been aggressive in dealing with those issues. Because it’s not about the teachers. The teachers do a damned good job. …The fact that our schools are still as segregated as they were 50-60 years ago speaks volumes about our unwillingness to put our arms around this issue and move on. We’re one of the largest urban community colleges in the country. Let me say this; we graduate more minority students with associate’s degrees than any school in the country. We’re rated number one in the country.”
Which matters even more when you consider that, when it comes to education, the state of Michigan now ranks near the very bottom.
“They say we’re the new Mississippi” in education, said Ivery.
Which is something Ivery is doing all he can to change. On six separate campuses that span a total of close to 500 square miles, WCCCD offers its students an incredibly broad range of educational opportunities and training, from the accounting, business administration and criminal justice courses taught at the Downtown Campus, to the first responder courses such as fire suppression and EMS and firefighter training taught at the 10-acre, $6 million facility located at the Downriver Campus in Taylor. Other courses taught at the Eastern, Western, and Northwest campuses include such offerings as welding, heating, ventilation, advanced manufacturing technologies including 3d prototyping, auto body technology, health sciences, information technology, nursing, and pharmaceutical training. Starting salaries for most jobs that become available upon graduation range from $25,000 to $65,000 annually.
The booming downtown and Midtown understandably attracts considerably positive attention but it is the transformative power of a community college education that may be an equally powerful motor powering the New Detroit.