04/17/2014 01:14 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Exporting Community Colleges: A Pathway to Economic and Social Mobility for Emerging Markets

Recently, I had the pleasure of joining a community college delegation to North Africa sponsored by the Aspen Institute's Partners for a New Beginning--North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB-NAPEO). The purpose of the delegation was to explore similarities and differences in the higher education and vocational training systems in the U.S. and North Africa, discuss best practices, and identify potential areas for future collaboration. The delegation visited Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and had the opportunity to meet with a higher education delegation from Libya on our last day in Tunisia.

As a vocal advocate for international education, I have had the opportunity to join other delegations and to host international delegations at my institution, the College of Lake County in Illinois. Typically, the discussions focus on our educational systems, students, programs, and missions, and almost always are exclusively attended by other educators or government officials. Unfortunately, business leaders and entrepreneurs are rarely, if ever, part of these international education discussions.

The Aspen Institute's Partners for a New Beginning--North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB-NAPEO) delegation was different and included wide representation from business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as, high-ranking government officials, U.S. Ambassadors and embassy representatives, community-based organizations, international development partners, and educators. The inclusion of business leaders and entrepreneurs was not only refreshing; it provided for a more robust and outcomes-based discussion about the knowledge, skills, and abilities that companies need to succeed in this region of the world.

While each country in the Mahgreb was different, they all face similar challenges and opportunities. Every person we met approached our conversations with a great sense of hope and optimism. They had a thirst for collaboration and for better understanding of the role of community colleges in the U.S. in preparing students for transfer to universities and for entry into the workforce as healthcare workers, machinists, electricians, chefs, programmers, technicians and many other occupations that are key to a strong economy. Most importantly, they wanted to learn more about how our collective efforts could build the foundation for a better economic future for their nations.

Each country was keenly focused on developing a skilled workforce in manufacturing, automotive, construction trades, hospitality and tourism, language skills, and information technology--disciplines in which community colleges thrive and have a great deal of expertise. They recognized that their economic future is intricately linked with their ability to train and educate a labor market with skills that are aligned with their local economies.

Realizing that good teaching is essential to building workforce skills, those we met were greatly interested in developing the skills and talents of educators within each of their countries. While all of the teachers we met had a genuine passion for their roles as teachers, they expressed a desire to build and expand their knowledge and teaching capability and were very interested in the community college perspective as we are often recognized for our focus on teaching and successfully working with students of varied ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and educational levels.

We found a great sense of hope and optimism, despite the obvious challenges of social and political conflicts. In our visits to the various educational institutions and universities, it was apparent that their instructional facilities were in need of investment. They lacked the basic instructional equipment and technology needed to provide students with the skills required to be successful in a 21st century workplace. Many of the workforce programs did not align with industry needs and standards, and it appeared that very little collaboration existed between employers and educational institutions. Finally, the highly centralized educational bureaucracy provided slow and inefficient mechanisms to respond to changing workforce and labor market needs. In what may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, centralization can be an efficient strategy, if the centralization involves high performing approaches; however, centralization of poor, outdated, and ineffective practices is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

Changing and improving the educational systems within this region will require the collective will of business leaders and entrepreneurs, government officials, educational leaders, community-based organizations and key influencers. The Aspen Institute's PNB-NAPEO initiative was able to bring many of these key influencers together.

Community colleges could serve as an important model in building the educational infrastructure to support these emerging economies. Community colleges serve as a gateway to economic and social prosperity and provide a return on investment for both the students and the communities in which they live. By design, community colleges are extensions of the communities they serve, including a close partnership to their local economies and businesses. The best community colleges are economic development engines in their communities and drive business development and entrepreneurship by providing a flexible, entrepreneurial, and highly trained workforce. Organizations such as the League of Innovation, American Association of Community Colleges, Global Corporate College, and individual community colleges have experience establishing international programs focused on workforce development and customized training.

Community colleges are well positioned and have the expertise to work collaboratively with willing partners in the Maghreb region. Such collaborations could benefit not just the region but also our faculty and students as well through exchanges and other partnerships. I am fortunate to work for a College with a Board of Trustees that values the importance of international education and recognizes that these types of partnerships are mutually beneficial and provide a "Win-Win" opportunity for both parties. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Aspen Institute's PNB-NAPEO program and to building new relationships with our colleagues in North Africa.

Dr. Rich Haney serves as the Vice President for Educational Affairs at the College of Lake County located in Grayslake, Illinois. The College of Lake County is a comprehensive community college serving students at three campuses. Dr. Haney is the Chief Academic Officer and provides leadership for all academic and student development programming at the College including adult education and workforce development. Dr. Haney serves as the Chair of the Board for Global Corporate College, an organization consisting of over 40 community colleges engaged in providing national and international customized training solutions for global companies. He received both his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.