Tom Watkins| The Oakland Press

Our Community Colleges are a vital link in helping to reinvent the great state of Michigan.

Community colleges are the grand entranceways to enhancing knowledge and skills, giving individuals a boost up life’s economic ladder while strengthening our communities. Given the troubling, tumultuous, transformational times we are now living in, our community colleges are truly a lifesaver for many.

Stopping at restaurants as I crisscross the state, I often ask servers whether they are in college. A lot of kids boast: “Of course. I attend the University of Michigan (or Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Oakland University, K-College, Madonna, Eastern Michigan University, Grand Valley, Davenport or Marygrove, to name a few).” But often, if they are attending community college, they will look away sheepishly and respond in a soft voice: “I’m just going to community college.”

I tell them to lift their heads proudly, since they are attending an educational institution that cares deeply about them. They are being taught by instructors who are focused on teaching what they know best, and students are saving themselves and their families a ton of cash.

Too often, community colleges are treated as an afterthought if they’re thought of at all, yet they are a vital link in our educational pipeline.

Community colleges make a significant difference in Michigan and the United States in helping prepare students and employees for our hyper-competitive, disruptive and technologically driven global knowledge-economy, where ideas and jobs can now move across the globe effortlessly.

Our community colleges are extremely responsive to local needs by providing re-education for laid-off workers and for those looking to upgrade their skills. These colleges are also agile in providing classes on demand by employers.

My support for community college education is personal as well as professional. I am a product of Michigan’s excellent community college system with degrees from Michigan State and Wayne State built upon the solid education I received at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn. I would not have had the exciting and rewarding career I enjoy without the educational foundation provided by the excellent instructors at Henry Ford. They are there to teach, and they do so with passion, excellence and hands-on experience.

Because of their accessibility, affordability and ability to provide reasonably priced continuing education, community colleges meet the needs of a significant portion of America’s population.

Gone are the days when one could leave or drop out of high school, enter an auto factory and emerge with a middle-class income. Michigan’s community colleges carry a heavy load and will continue to do so as Michigan transforms itself from a “heavy lifting” state to one with a knowledge-based economy.

We cannot and will not compete with developing nations on low-wage and low-skilled jobs. Our future depends on skilled, knowledgeable and flexible workers who can pivot rapidly and stay ahead of our global competitors. That workforce is being prepared today by a community college near you.

The viability of our society, the strength of our economy and the quality of our lives may very well depend on studying in a local community college today.

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools and currently is a U.S.-China business and educational consultant. He can be reached at

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