Obama, STEM, and the Rebranding of Community College

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama took another step in his effort to rebrand community colleges.  He sees the nation’s two-year colleges as playing a big role in preparing those who will work in emerging high-tech manufacturing industries.   Putting worries about his job-creation strategy aside for a minute (I’ll believe we can tax corporate outsourcing when I see it happen),  the speech did a good job of casting the American two-year college as home to sophisticated, cutting-edge science and technology skill and knowledge.

This message counters old stigmas associated with two-year technical programming, and I think it holds some promise for more inclusive STEM education writ large. Obama is associating community colleges,  at least rhetorically, with the promised science- and tech-based manufacturing resurgence…that is, with technical novelty and innovation. We are meant to leave behind our image of utilitarian “vo-tech” uplift,  and start picturing classrooms full of intellectual energy and achievement.  I could be caught up in the glow myself, of course, but it feels like the President is leveraging our cultural tendency to venerate high-tech in order to bring new respect to its students and teachers, even or especially in what has previously been seen by elite Americans as a second-best educational sphere.

In particular, Obama praised industry/school partnerships in which firms send employees to school for training or retraining in emerging technical fields.  He welcomed as his guest Jackie Bray,  who had found a renewed career through one such program run by Siemens at its Charlotte, NC,  “Energy Hub,” and although it remained a pretty vague directive, he called on Congress to provide the resources that would support such initiatives across the country.

And, he did all this early in the speech, when the largest audience could be guaranteed to hear it.

We mustn’t forget, of course, that job-focused education is not an unalloyed good, and that the possibility of transfer into bachelor’s programs must be built into the two-year curricula if we are sincerely to pursue educational and job equity in America. Four-year and graduate schools increasingly become options only for the affluent and we must not paper over that trend with feel-good rhetoric; people of limited economic means are turned away from the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees as a matter of course in this country, as this blog often points out.

What is more, industrial clean rooms function on the same managerial premises as assembly lines: modern manufacturing jobs are not necessarily any more secure or lucrative for the rank and file than were jobs in the “old tech” economy.

Nor is high-tech employment a guarantee of satisfying work. Repetitive, heavily mechanized or automated tasks performed by workers using nanolithography or bio-assay instruments can be as mind-numbing as those performed on shopfloors of a century ago. No job should deny those holding it the possibility of intellectual reward and creativity.  The history of manufacturing labor shows few employers making a priority of that concern and without it, STEM-focused education-for-jobs loses much of its sheen.

But let’s focus for now on Obama’s ongoing effort to cast community colleges as sites of exciting, immersive student experiences in technical fields. This is a significant rebranding that helps more than simply those individuals who may find jobs directly through programs like Siemans’.  It also moves us away from a stubborn habit we have in America of seeing two-year colleges and technical curricula as the preserve of those unable to “make the grade.”  This could recast the credentials offered by two-year schools,  and thus the opportunities of community college graduates as they move out across the nation’s higher-ed and employment spheres.  New labels are not enough, but they can help.

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