Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel is bullish on community colleges.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was the guest speaker on June 29 during a preview of the $198 million Gateway Community College New Haven campus.
“To a real extent, the future of the American middle class depends more on what happens at places like this than at Yale,” Wessel said of Gateway’s downtown New Haven neighbor. “Yale is doing a fine job turning out PhDs. But Yale can't teach someone how to be a respiratory therapist. That’s the function of these colleges.”
Wessel called community colleges “escalators of upward mobility.” While most people will not grow up to attend Yale, they can get on the community college escalator “and rise up,” he said.
Wessel, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s weekly "Capital" column, which focuses on the economy and forces shaping people’s living standards, said there currently are three job categories.
- “Brain power” professions, such as scientist, lawyer and doctor. “The demands for those workers are consistently strong—less in a bad economy, more so in a good one.”
- “Middle wage” work that is routine and easily outsourced, such as factory work. Many of these jobs are being sent overseas or are being done by machines.
- “Personal service” jobs such as waiter or truck driver. These jobs can’t be shipped overseas or done by a robot.
“Some of these jobs are OK but have lousy wages,” Wessel said. The best jobs for Middle America are those that “marry personal service with things that have to be done by human beings with brainpower,” he said. “These jobs can't be outsourced.”
Preparing students for these jobs is what community colleges excel at, he said. For example, students enrolled at Gateway Community College can study for associate degrees in Nursing and Allied Health. They can take classes in Diagnostic Medical Sonography and Dietetic Technology.
“Unless [community colleges] are well-funded, well-run and efficient, we do not have a lively and sustainable middle class. It's that simple,” he said.
Gateway Community College also has a campus in North Haven. The downtown New Haven building spans two city blocks formerly occupied by the Malley and Macy department stores.
“One might wonder what a Wall Street Journal reporter is doing in one of the nation's most beautiful community colleges,” Wessel said. “I did go to local schools. My grandmother was a German-Jewish refugee who worked in this very spot at the Edward Malley Company.”
He then sounded a cautionary note. “This is a beautiful building…but this is not a shopping mall. The point of a community college building is not to bring them here to admire the college; the point is what goes on in the minds of students.”
Across the nation, community colleges “are focused too much on enrollment and not focused enough on completion,” he said, pointing to recentU.S. Department of Educationdata that show that 65 percent of students at community colleges haven't earned a degree or another credential after six years.
That means, “a lot of students didn't get what they came for,” he said.
Wessel wrote the book, In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic and the upcoming Red Ink about the federal budget. He is also co-author of Prosperity, a book about the American middle class.
“There is a reason 'community' is the first name of these institutions,” he said. “They are rooted in the community. It is the responsibility of everyone in the community to support what goes on here.”
Without successful graduates of community colleges returning to the community, “we as a society will suffer,” Wessel said. “My hope is that the vision of its students will be as beautiful and as successful as this magnificent building.”
Margaret DeMarino is a freelance writer based in New Haven.