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Community colleges help us all

MY VIEW • PCC chief says education leads to better jobs, lives and society

A little more than seven months ago, I began work as the president of Portland Community College.

Since then I've met people from all walks of life who take pride in and contribute to their community. By extension, they recognize the role that the college plays in keeping their community strong Ñ for training and retraining, getting a start on a baccalaureate degree, learning basic skills and, most important, ensuring that all citizens have access to affordable education.

The value of community colleges cannot be overlooked. The need for educational opportunity, now more than ever, must be nourished, in Oregon and across the country. The gap between the education haves and have-nots is widening at an alarming rate. With costs increasing, college is slipping away from too many at a time when the need for postsecondary education is increasing in order to gain entrance to a middle-class life, the backbone of our nation's greatness.

I have firsthand experience with this. I grew up in a manufacturing community in Michigan and graduated from high school in 1964. I was the oldest of six children, and although my parents had no formal education, they expected me to graduate and go on to college. They'd immigrated from the South, along with many African-American families, for the job opportunities and to give their children more of a chance at a good life. They did not plan to see me waste it.

Although my parents strongly believed that education beyond high school was the key to success for their children, they also saw that the 1960s high school diploma could still guarantee a middle-class life.

Today, there is a wide division between those with a college education and those without.

Now, graduating from high school is not enough. Without college, the American dream will be out of reach, with people struggling month to month, often working two jobs to make ends meet.

Companies now outsource the kinds of jobs my dad had, working at a foundry and at a manufacturing plant. The truth of it is, well-paying unskilled labor jobs are less and less available in the United States.

In the 21st century, at least some college education is expected. In fact, eight of 10 jobs require education beyond high school, according to labor statistics. We are living in a world economy, and well-paying U.S. jobs rely more and more on technological skills.

People also are changing jobs more frequently, because of the changing nature of the workplace and the tight job market.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Labor study, the average person today will have 10 to 14 jobs, with the average job lasting three to five years. Studies also have shown that Americans will have seven careers in their lifetimes. The ramifications for our country are profound, particularly with the changing demographics. The only constant is change.

The importance and value of continuing education is increasingly evident. A study done by the College Board, 'The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,' shows that the earnings differential between high school and college graduates increased from 22 percent in 1972 to 65 percent in 2002. The study also reports that in 2003, the holder of an associate's degree will earn an average $42,900, while those with a high school diploma will earn just $24,100.

Higher education does pay, for the individual and for society. If we are to compete in the global economy, provide a path for our children and keep our communities strong, we must find ways to make education beyond high school affordable and accessible.

When I graduated from high school, I went on to my local community college and spent the first two years there before transferring to Michigan State University. My parents could not afford to send me to a state university. At the time, community colleges were a relatively new phenomenon. I realize now how important this new type of two-year institution was to my success Ñ mine and millions of other Americans in the last 40-plus years.

We face uphill challenges in Oregon and across the country to keep the doors open to community colleges, particularly for those who may not have other options to attend college. Those who come through our doors keep America strong. This year, I will be sharing the community college story of opportunity to legislators and people in our community. It is a story that needs to be told again and again.

Preston Pulliams is the fifth president of Portland Community College, overseeing the largest postsecondary institution in Oregon. He lives in Beaverton.