Since the dawn of the information era, higher education has quickly ceased to be a luxury. In fact, in today’s labor market, it is largely a necessity. Earning a post-secondary degree or other advanced credential has become a de facto prerequisite for 21st century jobs. Forty years ago, only 28 percent of jobs in the American workforce required a higher degree, while by 2018 over 63 percent will. 

Those numbers come from a recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report also shows that, just as importantly, higher education has become the gatekeeper to the aspiring middle class. In 1970, just one fourth of the American middle class had completed a post-secondary education, versus 61 percent in 2010, tracking the growth of high skill jobs. These numbers suggest that, should access to higher education falter, social mobility may continue to stagnate.

Study after study confirms the need to expand higher education all over the world. But at the same time, this critical education is increasingly expensive. In the US, for example, college tuition prices have climbed by more than 500 percent since 1985. As a result, in 2010, US graduates left college owing an average of more than $26,000. Making matters worse, current budget restraints reduce the government’s ability to share the burden of paying back such debts – even when they want to.

“The traditional college model needs to change,” says Gustavo Herrero, former Executive Director of the Harvard Business School’s Latin America Research Center, and now Vice Chairman of Argentina’s Universidad Austral. “We need universities that can adapt to the changes in the labor market.”

This is especially true given that traditional four year college is not always the best option for finding a good post-university job and developing a lucrative professional career. That is why alternative forms of higher education are gaining in importance. As the American Association of Community Colleges points out, there are over 1,100 such colleges in the US, serving more than 13 million students – and the two and three year programs they offer are now enrolling nearly the same number of new students as the traditional four year colleges.

The growth of community colleges has brought a number of advantages. They provide access to education for a disproportionate number of lower-income students, who are underrepresented at traditional colleges. Moreover, community colleges tend to provide an education more closely tied to the needs of the labor market and more focused on developing the skills that the private sector is demanding – all while remaining much less expensive than traditional universities.

Community colleges also play a key role in connecting students with labor demand – in Mexico, for example, “One out of every four positions go unfilled because the young workers that apply don’t possess the skills necessary for the job,” according to Ernesto Garcia of the Mexican think tank Center for Research on Development (CIDAC).

Such promising trends do not, however, guarantee effortless success for community colleges, either in Latin America or the US. Among the chief obstacles are the high dropout rates. In California, for instance, a 2010 report showed that 70 percent of students had not earned a degree nor transferred to a university within six years of enrolling at a community college. Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, an overwhelming majority of community college students quit – despite the benefits.

So it is not surprising that developing countries, which in general lag behind the US in terms of college education, are facing similar issues. But such countries could also especially benefit from alternative higher education, which better targets low income and marginalized groups. “A number of countries in Latin America are exploring the community college model,” says Juan Carlos Navarro, a technical director for the Competitiveness and Innovation Division at the Inter-American Development Bank.

These include chains like the Institutos Universitarios in Mexico and Argentina. They also include those like the National Aeronautics University in Queretero, Mexico, whose goal is to provide graduates capable of developing the region’s burgeoning aerospace sector. In Chile, there is the La Guardia Community College, and the Universidad Central de Santiago. These schools prove that alternative postsecondary options, which better connect students with the labor market and thus to better jobs, are possible in the region. They show why community colleges have earned their place in the education policy debate.

Unfortunately, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule – they hardly demonstrate a trend in the region. And the institutional and regulatory barriers are still high, as moving past the status quo challenges existing providers. As Navarro says, “in these countries which are encouraging community colleges, there is still a major challenge in terms of coordinating and validating accreditation with existing universities and the labor market.”

There is no time to lose. In Mexico, out of every 100 kids that start in elementary school, barely 21 will go on to earn any sort of higher education degree. This alarming figure is not significantly different in Brazil, or Colombia. And while a number of Latin American presidents press their legislatures for more money for higher education, few are considering community colleges a priority. Both for our students and the dynamism of our economies – let’s hope it’s a trend that changes soon.