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American community colleges: a study trip report

This contribution draws on a study visit to a number of American Community Colleges in the US in September 2014 as part of JET’s aim to contribute to the national and international debate on skills development and youth unemployment.

The vision of the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training (DHET, 2013) to expand the post-school education and training sector is expected to address the current narrow pathways and opportunities available for young people.

Countries across the world have developed different systems of post-school education and training that reflect their economic, socio–cultural and historical trajectories. As these systems have evolved in response to unique demands specific to those countries, it is neither possible nor desirable to simply imitate these systems.  However, a comparative study aimed at understanding the broader patterns and conditions of success or failure could shed some light on useful lessons.

Community colleges in the United States of America present an example of one country's response. Community colleges are, in many ways, American innovations and have evolved in relation to forces of change that are unique to that country. American community colleges have grown from less than ten at the start of the 20th century to over 1,000 colleges in 2012. This remarkable achievement was driven by a combination of forces of community demands for more education and training and American national concerns for a trained workforce. This is partly reflected in the diverse groups of communities served by these colleges. The following common pattern and practices can be discerned: 


  • Open access, low barrier to entry and affordable;
  • Diverse and comprehensive programs that cater for diverse needs ranging from the academic transfer needs to access higher education, development of the workforce and continuous education, to community and personal enrichment programmes;
  • Flexibility in providing credit and non-credit programmes during the day and in evenings and over weekends;
  • A local community presence that fosters a strong partnership with local industry, business and community needs;
  • Close articulation to local secondary schools and universities;
  • Responsiveness through curriculum partnership structures such as an external advisory board that includes local community and industries; and
  • The provision of extensive developmental and bridging programmes for unprepared students.


Notwithstanding the many challenges faced by American community colleges, initial observations suggest that a diversified, differentiated, flexible and affordable post-school sector is critical to facilitate the social mobility of a large number of people and foster national and economic development.

For more details read the presentation 

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