Monday, October 10, 2016

Real College

A recent request on the NACAC exchange asked about information for a student – certainly not unusual.  Unfortunately, the other thing that wasn’t unusual was the following: “She is not interested in community college programs nor exterior programs where she is not actually admitted to a university, in other words, she want to experience being as close to a normal college student as possible.” 

For any other fans of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, let’s pretend I am wearing the big furry hat, and this is a decree forever going forward.

Community college is college.  It is real college.  It is, based on the fact that community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education by quite a bit, the most normal college.   
Please understand, my feelings are not hurt when people say that the institutions that I have worked with or at for my entire career are illegitimate, or at least, as with this questioner, a lesser, other, option.  I have thick skin (and waist, and skull…).  The reason that it’s important for me to respond here is because comments in the vein of separating community colleges as “other” in conversations of higher education are generally dismissive of the students enrolled at them, the faculty that teach at them, and the administrators and staff who make them work.  This creates several problems.  

First, it actively discourages students who would be excited to begin their higher education experience with a more local and in many cases, more supportive experience by painting it as a negative option.  It is not the best option for everyone, but neither is an Ivy League school.   By not portraying it as an experience of equivalent stature, it damages those students who do not have my thick skin.  Students who are on the fringes of higher education for any of a thousand reasons often find a safe place to become the academic stars that they were not in high school, or an affordable place to gain traction in an environment that is increasingly expensive.  No one is confusing Harvard and LaGuardia Community College, but that goes both for international reputation and for access for students who are generally disenfranchised by a system based on elitism, wealth, and privilege.  I’m scoring that 1-1. 

Second, students who could be preparing for the transfer process from high school are not, because they, their parents, and their counselors are not acknowledging that option early enough.  NACAC is completely deficient in the transfer conversation (more on that soon), and NACAC is the single biggest high school counselor connection to higher education.  AACRAO has been having a transfer conference for better than a decade, but it tends to focus on the technical aspects of the process (it is an organization for registrars), and it lacks the high school counselors.  Even NYSTAA, the New York State Transfer & Articulation Association, has suffered such a disconnect between segments of the process (four-year admissions and two-year advising) in recent years that specific workshops were included in the annual conference last May to reintroduce the membership to each other (full disclosure, I presented them).  There is very little by way of practical introduction as to how to incorporate transfer planning for students until they are knee-deep in the process, and many problems that could have been avoided are now front and center. 

I understand that the community college experience is not what most students want, or what most counselors or parents want for their students.  Unfortunately, this is due in large part to misunderstandings about those institutions and the students they serve, and due in largest part to incredibly poor PR.  Open access does not mean that every student at the institution is a poor student – many are outstanding academic students.  Affordable does not mean low value – it simply means lower cost. (If it makes you feel better to pay more, just pretend you’re an out of state resident or international student.  Let me know if the higher rates increase your value.) The only portrayals of community colleges in media are negative or comic relief.  Unfortunately, these portrayals, often combined with parent, family, and counselor reinforcement, take on great power in the minds of students who would and could be much better served by starting in the community college.  It also weakens the efforts of those institutions and of the students they serve. 

Unfortunately, the “otherness” of community colleges in these conversations also reinforce the “otherness” of their students.  This is not a small thing, as no other segment of higher education enrolls as many students of color or as many students of low-socioeconomic status.  These students use the community college as a legitimate entry point to higher ed and all that that encompasses.  They often face a steep uphill climb to completion, for a variety of reasons, but it creates an even steeper incline when they have to battle a lack of advice or information, or worse, denigration for their institution of choice. 

Community colleges have courses, credits, registrars, bursars, financial aid, liberal arts, arts, and technical training, Ph.D.-bearing faculty, and students with aspirations and accomplishments both.  Some have dorms, some have intercollegiate sports.  They enroll nearly 8 million students, almost half of the total undergraduate population of the country.  Community colleges are college, for better or worse, with all that entails, except the pretension.   Of that, they could use a bit more. 

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