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Op-ed: How could India build a better community college system?

By Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani, Ph.D.
President, Tidewater (Va.) Community College

In 2010, President Obama and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, committed themselves to creating partnerships in higher education between our two countries. With some 600 million young people and demands by Indian business and industry for an educated and trained workforce, one can certainly appreciate the Indian government’s urgency. Its goal – to educate 500 million people by 2022 to meet India’s business and community needs – shows it is trying to do the right thing for India’s future. And what better model for accessible, affordable, quality education is there than the American community college system? India’s leaders certainly recognize that. 

The work has started. And it’s a very exciting prospect. A few weeks ago, I was part of a delegation of American community colleges to a conference in Mumbai, “Mainstreaming Skills in Education – Creating Relevant Human Resources.” 

During my visit, I and my Indian counterparts identified two potential opportunities for Tidewater Community College to establish partnerships in India. TCC’s maritime education programs are well respected and established, and our city of Norfolk, Va., has a sister city in India, the Arabian Sea port of Kochi. I could envision us helping in the design and startup of a college-level maritime education program in India.

Our programs in the allied health professions, pharmacy and nursing present another area of interest and critical need in India. I met with the director of a nursing college who has identified the need to expand into other health care education fields.

The country, of course, faces many infrastructure and cultural challenges that are foreign to most Americans. India is about a third the size of the U.S., but its population is more than three times ours. English and Hindi are the official languages of India, and it has 22 constitutionally recognized languages, and hundreds more spoken dialects. Indian society is still defined by castes, and although discrimination is illegal, the system endures.

The Indian government plans to pilot 200 community colleges beginning this fall. “This is a time when millions need access to higher education,” Sanjay Rai, vice president and provost of Montgomery College’s (Md.) Germantown campus,” said in 2010.  “The community college model is a natural fit for India.” In fact, Montgomery College already has an India initiative. “Montgomery College’s mission of changing lives and enriching our community does not stop at the borders of our campuses, the county line, or our own country,” President  DeRionne Pollard said.

Still, some have raised questions.  After he visited the U.S. in 2012, one state education minister recommended his government focus on improving existing institutions. “It is not possible to open community colleges in India or make that provision in existing colleges which had been experimented in America,” he told the Times of India.

In one sense, the community college model of an accessible, affordable, and quality education delivered in a two-year time frame makes a great deal of sense for India. But as I reflected on my trip over the last few weeks, I began to consider whether the country’s breathtaking cultural, geographic, economic,  and language diversity will complicate the process of creating a community college system from the top down. In addition, at the conference, there was a lot of talk about stackable and transferable credentials with access to this type of education for all. How can a countrywide, central government-imposed curriculum provide access to all people when there remain such significant language and economic barriers and where there is little access to any type of education from the early years on?

The community college system in America was not imposed by the federal government. It grew from the bottom up, by state and by region, in response to locally defined needs – for an educated workforce, for an alternative path to college for students who aren’t ready for a four-year institution, for affordable access to higher education. Community colleges are most effective when they are responsive to local issues and needs. And I wonder whether this ambitious initiative in India to establish a community college-like system might be better achieved by the government allowing its individual states and regions to examine what their citizens and businesses need and how affordable access to quality education could fill the bill. It’s a foundational approach that has served America’s community colleges well.