Getting an education beyond high school has never been more critical to success in the job market. But getting a college degree has never been more difficult for many students with jobs or families, who can ill afford to spend four years in a traditional full-time program. That's why a joint program of flexible courses offered by Pierce College and Cal State Los Angeles is such a good idea--so long as Pierce, a community college, doesn't forget its primary constituents: students who may never get a four-year degree.
Students in the program, which begins in January, can earn a bachelor's degree in business administration in just over three years by taking classes at night and on weekends. A similar program offered by Santa Monica College and Cal State Northridge already is overcrowded, suggesting that there's strong demand for nontraditional curricula.
On average, college graduates can expect to earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than students who just complete high school. Highly skilled jobs in fields like technology and finance demand the critical thinking that upper-division college courses try to develop. Yet four-year degrees are no guarantee of a middle-class paycheck. In fact, many well-paying jobs do not require the academic training of a bachelor's degree. A quarter of all jobs are in the skilled trades such as electrical repair, dental hygiene or motion picture lighting. Some projections estimate that in a decade, half of all jobs will be in the skilled trades--jobs that require technical training but not necessarily a four-year degree.
Training for many of these jobs has traditionally been the responsibility of community colleges like Pierce, Valley and Mission. That must remain the campuses' primary role. Offering programs such as the joint venture with Cal State Los Angeles helps deliver the benefits of higher education to more students, and The Times encourages that kind of flexibility to match the hectic lives of today's young people. That said, community colleges serve a unique purpose in California. Thanks to them, students who lack the desire or ability to attend a four-year school can acquire the technical skills necessary to compete in an ever-more-complex economy. That is where community colleges excel, and that is where they should focus most of their resources.