The term “community college” suggests an inexpensive way to complete your first two years of a four-year degree while living at home. Perhaps one could complete a two-year AS degree in a technical field. Or perhaps get a one-year technical certificate to enter the job market quickly and at a higher salary. Well, are you in for a big surprise? Are we in a phase of sound fiscal management? Or, are we in a phase of, as Yogi Berra would say, "Déjà vu educational stupidity all over again"?

You do know that history has a way of repeating itself? Perhaps we could spend a few minutes together and review the history of the community college, technical institutes, and the state area vocational-technical schools to see if history and our own common sense can answer these questions for us.

Two score and ten years ago, life was easier and more laid back. As a nation, we had been through WWII and Korea. We had proven to the world that we were the most technically advanced nation. After all, Japan and Germany had been destroyed during the war along with most of the rest of the world. The United States was in a rebuilding phase and had no competition. This worldwide devastation from WWII had all but destroyed Europe, including Russia.

Yes, Russia. You know that backward country that chose to hide behind the "Iron Curtain" after WWII and for many years to come? Russia maintained such a low profile, in 1956, that no one considered them competition for a country as technically advanced as our country, the USA. Well, that was our general feeling until 1957 and Sputnik.

In 1957, Russia put the first manned space craft into orbit. Now this was a real finger-in-the-light-socket moment. In that one moment, Russia announced to the world that they were now the new world leader in technology. For the first time in the 20th century, the United States was less than number one in the world of technology.

What could we do? As a nation, educationally, the general feeling was up to the English and down to the shops. Becoming an electrician or a welder is fine for the children of other people, but my children are going to college. Yes, major in English and become a novelist like Thomas Wolfe or a playwright like James Agee. But never will my children have a need to become "blue collar" workers like their parents. We wanted a world of "white collar" employment for our children. 

In the early to mid-1950s we budgeted less money for higher education and shifted current dollars from technical programs to liberal arts programs. The industrial private sector apprentice programs could now produce all the electricians and welders that it needed, and at its own expense without spending taxpayer money. We didn't want to spend money on blue-collar training when we were well on our way to becoming a "white-collar” society.

The Sputnik flight instantly forced the United States to do two things. One, realize that we were not number one in the world of technology. Two, and most importantly, it made us think about how to regain our world title as the world leader in technology.

The national reaction was to find out what we needed to regain our world leadership in technology. We discovered, as a nation, that we needed many more and better trained welders, electricians, etc. Yes, many more and better trained "blue-collar" people. Also, we realized that a good welder, a good machinist, or a good brick mason had more earning power than a public school teacher or social worker. This was a hard pill to swallow. But nationally, we did what had to be done: The Federal Act of 1963.

The Federal Act of 1963 created the process of providing the states with a system of community colleges, technical institutes, and state area vocational-technical schools. This federal act would be the vehicle that would transport the United States back to world leadership status.

President Kennedy announced to the world that we would put a man on the moon and return him home during the decade. Yes, we are going to show those Russians who is really number one in the world of technology.

Sputnik and the Federal Act of 1963 are the reasons why these state community colleges, state technical institutes, and state area vocational-technical schools were built in the early to mid-1960s to early 1970s. These post-secondary institutions (higher education) created by the Federal Act of 1963 vaulted the United States back into a world leadership role. It cost a lot of money to be a world leader, but it was worth it. Technology leadership is not a one-time payment to higher education. It must continue forever because technology is forever changing and improving. Every time we develop a new technology we must retool to produce that technology, and we must train and/or retrain our work force to stay ahead of the technology curve.

Now for the good news/bad news elements of our history lesson. The good news is that for every dollar we spent in the space program we received seven dollars in return for products created like Teflon, duct tape, epoxy glue, and GPS (global positioning system) technology, just to name a few. The Federal Act of 1963 returned us to our leadership in technology status and made a profit at the same time.

The bad news is we seem to have learned very little from our own history lesson. We have returned to our old position that our post-secondary systems of technology training (state community colleges, state technical institutes, and state area vocational-technical schools) don't need additional funding. Yogi Berra would say "déjà vu all over again".

The general trend nationally in higher education is less funding. States are increasing tuition at alarming rates annually. States that have lotteries use the dollars for scholarships providing students the ability to attend college-level training. At the same time, they reduced state funding for college level programs to limit the number of programs and the number of students who can attend. In states like Florida and Tennessee, students receive scholarship money and have long waiting lists to enter the program of their choice. The nation has endured astronomical increases in student tuition and fees. Tennessee's colleges/universities and technology centers have seen tuition fees increase more than 40% in three years. The technology access fees for students has increased over 80% during the same time.

The truth is that in education you can spend yourself rich, and save yourself poor. If you aren't currently using the latest training technology, you are paying for it in lost productivity in the workplace. Without the latest technical equipment and the best-trained technicians, we will not continue to be the world leader we portray ourselves to be.

We had a 1956 state of mind until Sputnik sounded the wakeup call and sent us scrambling to the moon with the Federal Act of 1963. Today we are saving ourselves money by balancing the budgets with dollars that should go to higher education as an investment in our future. We just assume that we are the world leader in technology.

I will leave you with one concept to consider: are we telling ourselves the truth about our technical competencies and our world leadership position? If we are that good, then why are there so many Japanese, German, Korean, and other imported cars in use in the United States? Why are no farm tractors with less than 100 horsepower manufactured in the United States? Yes, it is safe to say that the car you drive, the television you watch, and the clothes you and your family wear are imported.

The following story is courtesy of Coy E. Gibson, retired HVAC Excellence board member.

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