Community colleges have long occupied the lowest rungs of tertiary education in the United States. These are the public funded schools deemed institutions of last resort for many students - where someone would end up if he or she got bad grades.
Yet, when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam went to California last week to draw ideas for Singapore's own efforts to improve skills training, he visited community colleges rather than brand-name universities.
He wanted to look at what is the centrepiece of the Obama administration's push for more Americans to get degrees - and which have been most effective at preparing older workers who lost their jobs in the 2007-2008 financial crisis for new jobs.
One distinguishing feature that makes community colleges ideal for the task - the schools do not care about the applicants' grades.
"We like to say we take in the top 100 per cent," Mr Paul Feist, vice-chancellor for communications for California community colleges, told The Straits Times. The state is known to have some of the best community colleges in the country.
That means classes are often composed of a varied mix of students, a phenomenon that caught the eye of Mr Tharman. Some 20 per cent of first-time students enrolling in the spring term in the California colleges were above 40.
Ms Mary Sue Vickers, the director of the Plus 50 Initiative, a programme that helps retrain older workers, said community colleges were ideal for older students because they were offering shorter, industry-relevant courses.
"What we have found is that older students prefer shorter-term training, even if it just ends with a certificate," she said.
The Plus 50 Initiative helps community colleges create fast-track courses, helps older workers get up to speed with IT and mathematics skills, and also sponsors training for teachers on how to deal with a mixed-age classroom.
Mr Jeff Heyman, who teaches a social media class at Laney College, said he gets all types of students in his class, and teachers have learnt to manage the diversity: "You do have to be sensitive to what everybody brings to the classroom. You have older people who are retired, or maybe older people who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn and you have high school students who simply want to learn something."
Another advantage of community colleges is their close links to leaders in the community and employers. In California, while a central chancellor's office oversees all the community colleges, schools in each district also have a locally elected board of trustees.
"Colleges are fairly responsive to the needs of the community and can change quickly to meet those local needs," said Mr Feist, who said a new programme can be up and running in less than a year.
The schools also work closely with industries to fulfil very specific needs. For instance, when the Southland Motor Car Dealers Association needed to ensure that there would be technicians who could repair electric and hybrid cars, it partnered with the California colleges to build a facility and develop a programme to train such workers.
For many older students, the experience of going back to school and learning alongside teenagers is far less daunting than it seems.
Mr Bob Koontz, 58, retired four years ago after a nearly four-decade-long career in the fire department. He is now taking a course in geology in the hope of getting a part-time teaching job.
And though his classmates are mainly in their 20s, he said he is enjoying the experience.
"I've always wanted to go to college but the demands of work and raising a family didn't allow for it. So I'm really glad I'm getting to do this now."
This article was first published on Oct 18, 2014.
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