Community Colleges An American Export Students come from all over the world to take advantage of the United States' higher education system. One aspect of that system is catching on overseas: the community college. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one two-year program is humming along.
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Community Colleges An American Export

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Community Colleges An American Export

Community Colleges An American Export

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In the world of higher education, two-year colleges often don't get the same respect as four-year institutions here in the United States. But overseas, many educators say they are in awe of our community college system. And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, they want to copy it.

LARRY ABRAMSON: In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, young men gather in a drab office building, practicing their knowledge on some biomedical engineering equipment. Instructor Ahmad Alhamawi is putting them through their paces to see if they understand how to fix what's broken.

Mr. AHMAD ALHAMAWI: And the job - or the missions of the student is to find this fault and to solve this fault. And this, we call in English, troubleshooting.

ABRAMSON: This is Riyadh Community College, a bit of a novelty in Saudi Arabia and in this region. Unlike the technical institutes found in many countries, this school awards an associate's degree that can get students a job or send them on to a four-year school. Since the launch here in 2003, the community college system in the kingdom has grown to 50 schools.

Professor Saad Alshehri, the dean of the college, says like his counterparts in the States, he develops the curriculum with the help of industry advisers.

Professor SAAD ALSHEHRI (Dean, Riyadh Community College): And they tell us, what is the skills needs for our graduate student. What do they need?

ABRAMSON: Alshehri teaches chemistry at King Saud University. Unlike typical U.S. schools, Riyadh Community College is part of the larger university, and lives under its shadow. But Alshehri wants RCC to be a contender.

(Soundbite of beeping)

ABRAMSON: He shows off the labs for training health-care workers, who are in big demand here. Like a proud papa, Alshehri can't stop boasting about the quality of these facilities, telling me no one in the region has a lab as good as this one.

Prof. ALSHEHRI: This is the only data (unintelligible) center of the whole Middle East like this one.

ABRAMSON: Students come here for training in computer science, or to learn patient care for hospital jobs. The school is seeking international accreditation to improve graduates' chances as they enter the workforce.

(Soundbite of people talking)

ABRAMSON: Male students play pool in the recreation area. They are all dressed in thobes, the long, white tunic most Saudi men wear. There are no women. They attend a separate campus, as they do in nearly all Saudi schools. And you won't see the adult students who take courses at community colleges in the States. Saad Alshehri says students in the kingdom must attend college within five years of graduating from high school.

Prof. ALSHEHRI: It's free, and we pay the students. So you know, you cannot leave your door open all the time and pay money for that. You have to put some rules for that. So, that's another road between the education here and the United States.

ABRAMSON: Riyadh Community College has been learning a lot from Houston Community College, which is helping the school become fully accredited. Saad Alshehri has visiting Houston many times. One idea he picked up is the need to have multiple campuses, something he hopes will attract students across this sprawling metropolis.

Other countries in the region are also looking to this American creation to help train their workforce. The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is said to open its first community college this fall. Professor Ibrahim al-Naimi(ph) is heading up the effort. He says Qatar Community College will be one of the few co-educational schools in the country.

Professor IBRAHIM AL-NAIMI (Qatar Community College): These graduates will, after two years, they will be in the workplace, OK? And the workplace is already co-ed. And so we have to train the kids to be prepared for their future.

ABRAMSON: And in South America, community colleges are having a grand opening of sorts. With some advice from U.S. schools, Santiago Chile just opened what's being advertised as the first true community college in that country. The Agency for International Development has recognized the power of this educational model, and is helping to fledge new schools through grants and exchange programs.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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