By Pam Eddinger, President, Bunker Hill Community College

During my 11 years at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts, I have received many visits from global educators curious about the uniquely American phenomenon of the Community College. In our exchanges, we inevitably observe that we are a place that prepares individuals for the future of work, particularly those from communities traditionally marginalized by the higher education system. In the almost 123 years since our movement’s founding in Joliet, Illinois, community colleges have bridged the demand for educated workers as society advanced, from the agrarian to the industrial age and into the information age of today. We are ever-evolving, ever-adapting, and always made for our times.

Our practical magic is the ability to see the strengths of our marginalized learners through the challenges of their complex lives and to deliver an education that promises career and economic mobility. We are also attuned to industry and labor trends. This responsiveness to social and labor needs has driven our reinvention with each wave of change in student demographics and with each stage of advancement in the world of work.

Our movement grew through the middle of the 20th century as the industrial age opened pathways to college and skilled work to more people than ever. The recognition of the community colleges in the 80s and 90s as workforce and economic development powerhouses as well as transfer preparation colleges prefigured the community college mission today: We are a hub at a crossroad of social sectors, where learners seek hope and advancement, where employers mine talent for a future workforce, where social services and support knit together communities, and where newcomers and long-time residents alike bring their culture and experiences to form new social networks and to find common ground.

Bunker Hill Community College has been that hub for the last decade. Some 16,000 learners come through our doors each year from Boston and neighboring cities. We are diverse in race, ethnicity, and language: About a quarter white, a quarter Black, a quarter Latinx, 15% API, and 10% a mixture of all those wonderful cultures. Two-thirds of the learners are adults, most work full-time, three out of five are parents, and a good portion are single parents. 77% of our learners are living in the lowest two-quintile of income, more than half are food insecure, and 14% are homeless. Yet once they receive their credential and enter the workforce, they jump two income quintiles and generations are transformed.

In Boston today community colleges are again being called to educate a new workforce to meet urgent demands, and to revive the economic vibrancy of communities in the post-COVID period. Greater Boston has witnessed dramatic growth in a range of industries, including life sciences, health care, information technology, and in the emerging sectors of clean and green energy. Demand for health care and life science workers is unrelenting, and new industries require a trained workforce to flourish. Three quarters of the jobs created this decade will require some post-secondary education.

Community colleges play a key role in building an education pipeline that balances the labor needs of advancing industries and the aspirations of our students. Partnering with K12, colleges are shoring up the college-going pipeline with Early College efforts. Bunker Hill’s partnership with neighboring Charlestown High School envisions universal access, in which all high schoolers will have an opportunity to participate. The Early College design is career-sensitive, including health care and high-tech pathways.

Further along the pipeline, for the adult population, MassReconnect is our state’s free community college initiative for those 25 and over without a college degree. Covering tuition, fees, books and supplies, this last-dollar program offsets a portion of the opportunity cost and increases access for adults. This fall, the 15 Massachusetts community colleges served a total of 8,500 learners under MassReconnect. The potential of MassReconnect to draw new learners who previously could not afford to attend opens a source of untapped talent that promises to be transformative for the labor force, as well as the economic recovery and uplift of low-income communities. With the success of MassReconnect, the Commonwealth is undertaking a viability study of free community college for all, a movement that has touched close to 40 states across the nation.

The promise of education, social and economic participation, and community vibrancy has always animated the community college movement. The learners we serve today carry a distinct set of origin stories than those a century, or even a decade ago. Yet their yearning for social and economic betterment for themselves and the family remains strikingly similar. Community colleges have always been a movement that meets the moment. And we shall again, as we renew our promise for our second century.