Students at Southwestern Community College in the Outdoor Leadership program talk about finding their passion for the outdoors.
Asheville Citizen Times
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for community colleges. I began my higher education in one. So did my sister, my son and my daughter. I will never attend Southwestern Community College, but I am pleased that it is rated the nation’s best.
When I began college, nearly 65 years ago, Florida did not yet have a community college system and there were only two public junior colleges, as they then were called, in the state. Palm Beach Junior had students from all over South Florida.
Aside from first-year nursing studies in conjunction with the area’s largest hospital, Palm Beach Junior was geared solely to preparing students for transfer to a four-year school. Today, after two name changes, Palm Beach State College awards several bachelor’s degrees in addition to associate degrees and vocational certification.
Florida, which has twice North Carolina’s population but only 12 state universities, expanded community colleges upward to meet a shortage of opportunity. North Carolina, with 17 universities, has kept its community colleges s they were. Under that system, Southwestern has thrived.
The college’s crowning achievement came when BestColleges.com put Southwestern atop its listing of “The Best Community Colleges & Trade Schools of 2020.” On its website, BestColleges.com says its methodology is “grounded in statistical data and a few consistently applied guiding principles, including academic quality, affordability, and online competency.”
This is the fourth time in the last 13 years that Southwestern has been included among the top ten colleges in the U.S. Washington Monthly placed Southwestern at No. 4 in 2007 and No. 9 in 2010, and WalletHub had it at No. 7 in 2015.
“This ranking validates what I’ve been saying for years: Southwestern is the best community college in the country,” Dr. Don Tomas, the school’s president, said on the college’s website.
“We are at the top because we have the most caring, giving and supportive faculty and staff members you’ll find anywhere. They give freely of their time and their energy because they want to help our students succeed.
“A culture like this doesn’t happen overnight. Earning this level of recognition is a credit not only to our current employees and leadership but also to our predecessors and all the wonderful men and women who’ve served on our Board of Trustees over the years.”
Good community colleges meet the special needs of the workforce in their service areas. Asheville-Buncombe, for instance, has a culinary arts and hospitality program to train people for jobs in the area’s burgeoning hospitality industry. Southwestern has table-gaming classes as part of a casino-preparation program in cooperation with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Southwestern is the nation’s only community college to have a scientific partnership with NASA. The college’s Public Safety Training Center, located in Franklin, was the first in the U.S. to offer Park Ranger Law Enforcement Academy training for the National Park Service.
Southwestern is also the only community college in the state to offer an associate degree in outdoor leadership, and it launched the first wilderness therapy program in the nation from its Swain County Center.
I wince every time I view one of those TV commercials for a for-profit vocational school. Too often, such schools leave their alumni with minimal job prospects and a lot of student-loan debt. Don’t fall for those spiels. You will get better education as far less cost through a community college.
Today’s community colleges are descendants of the normal schools that trained teachers in the 19th Century. Western Carolina University began as a normal school in 1893. As WCU evolved, the need arose for a community college, leading to the founding of Southwestern in 1964.
Today, Southwestern serves more than 2,500 students from campuses in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and on the Qualla Boundary. According to bestcolleges.com, and other entities that have rated Southwestern among the nation’s top ten in the past, it serves them very well.
This is the opinion of Bill McGoun, a contributing editor on the Citizen Times Editorial Board. He lives in Bryson City.
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