blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: Not angry, but passionate...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Not angry, but passionate...

The following is a compilation (with some editing) of a few Facebook posts made in response to a comment made about community colleges. In the end , I don’t think the poster meant anything negative in what he said, but it got me thinking and feeling like I needed to respond. It also touched a nerve of a former student who worked very hard to earn her degree and who took a little umbrage at the possible implications of what was said. The first comment was that community college is “thirteenth grade” – which is a long-standing term that, as you will see, is not a positive one. I responded with an adamant no, which prompted the following phrases:
  • It is the middle ground of teaching between high school and large universities across the nation.
  • They give you a drastically larger amount of leeway in community college.
  • It is essentially an extension of high school. 
  • You can take community college courses in high school
  • It is the 13th grade. It's a stepping stone.

So, this is my reply…

First, let me say that I've been teaching at a CC for 10 years, meaning I’ve stood in front of around 140 classes full of something close to 1,900 students. I think it’s important to know where I’m coming from so that you can understand that I’m speaking from experience and observation and a fair number of conversations with and about students. With all of that floating around for close to a quarter of my life, I am confident saying that I don't think you are right - at least not for every student.

Students come to a community college for countless reasons and while some of them are of the stepping stone variety, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that it’s a middle ground that is just an extension of high school. The four year schools clearly don’t look at them that way. For instance, if Johnny Student gets his Associates at a community college and has been attentive to his courses and educational path along the way, then he will transfer as a junior. It's not really less than the four-year at all if that student is using it to completely replace the first two years of a four year degree and that four year institution fully accepts their work at the CC as equivalent to two years in house. If the classes were just an extension of high school, those large universities you mentioned wouldn't take the transfers - they wouldn't deem the courses good enough for credit at their institutions. Not all of the courses or all of the universities, of course, but enough of them to imply that the four years aren't particularly worried about that leeway you seem to think exists in the community college classroom.

That said, I'm certainly not going to deny that for some students, it is most definitely used as a way to get more ready for a four year; however, making a blanket statement about what purpose it serves for ALL students is inaccurate and rapidly becoming more so. Historically, community colleges often served that role and only that role, no doubt.  The fact that they were (and in some places in the country still are) called junior colleges is a testament to that. That, however, is hardly the role of the CC in today’s world of strapped economies, increasing costs of college, and the decreasing number of available jobs for new graduates or long-time workers. This shifting landscape has completely altered the role and purpose of the community college in the world of education. It’s not just one thing anymore and it doesn't serve just one kind of student.

For some of our students, it better prepares them for the university experience, as you said. For others, though, it's just plain cheaper or close to home. They've worked at a company for decades, but are laid off and their only option for job re-training of any kind is the local CC because they have a family and can’t uproot. For others, it's that the CC has a fantastic program that is just what they want. Maybe they want to go into Music Recording or Conservation or even go somewhere that has an award-winning Woodsmen’s Team or a burgeoning Viticulture program. For still more, it makes it easier to get into the four year because they've already proven themselves at a significantly lower cost.  If  Jane Student enters into a joint admissions program, she will gain automatic entry into SUNY Geneseo if she successfully completes two years at FLCC.  One is much easier to get into, but the other accepts those two years as good enough.  Others go to a CC because they are entering a field where two years is enough to move forward in a career. You just can’t label or pigeonhole all the myriad of reasons a student chooses a community college. It’s not just the traditional aged high school graduate anymore, with or without college credit going in.

This leads to another thing that you said that’s true, but not the whole picture. You most certainly can take CC courses while in high school, but you can also take Syracuse University classes (through SUPA). Additionally, Advanced Placement classes and exams in high school will give you college credit as well - regardless of whether your destination is a four year or two year. They aren't college classes, per se, but they are college credit that will 'take the place' of a class in college, so the end result is similar.

In the end, it may just be that we disagree simply on a semantics level or on a level of scope, but I firmly believe that referring to CC in one way for all students is limiting. If you believed I was offended, perhaps you were right. Perhaps I sensed judgment because I've faced that judgment before. If you knew anything about the history of the community college struggle for legitimacy and respect, you would know that the 13th grade phrase has been used for a terribly long time as a derisive, dismissive, and demeaning way to refer to CC. Those who work there and have given their hearts to the mission of the community college tend to feel the need to chime in when it gets used.

I fell into the CC world by accident. It never occurred to me to attend one when I graduated for just the kind of reasons you listed – I had 17 credits of AP, a couple of scholarships, and had eyes on my Masters. I went straight to the four year and spent twelve and a half years earning a Bachelor’s, then a Master’s, and finally a Doctorate. Looking up the job availability at a community college was a moment of inspiration and when I got the job, I was thrilled and excited. It has only gotten better since then. I sometimes get asked, in a tone of disbelief and even judgment, why I don’t teach at a four-year since I could make more money and publish and a variety of other opportunities if I did. The one thing I would lose, however, is the focus on the student. All the students – no matter why they are there, what their abilities and limitations are, or where they go once they are done. That’s what matters…that’s what will always matter.