Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy?

As laid-off workers add to surging enrollments, the White House looks to two-year schools for an educational bailout

Photographs for TIME by Matthew Mahon

Community-college students Fred Boncy, left, Keith Grosskopf and Alina Poulsen assemble a wind turbine in Austin, where renewable-energy firms are hiring.

Community colleges are deeply unsexy. This fact tends to make even the biggest advocates of these two-year schools — which educate nearly half of U.S. undergraduates — sound defensive, almost a tad whiny. "We don't have the bands. We don't have the football teams that everybody wants to boost," says Stephen Kinslow, president of Texas' Austin Community College (ACC). "Most people don't understand community colleges very well at all." And by "most people," he means the graduates of fancy four-year schools who get elected and set budget priorities.

Many politicians and their well-heeled constituents may be under the impression that a...

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