Lower Education(?)

Lower Education(?)

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While walking through the halls of a large east coast community college with an instructor recently, a question was posed about the role of the open admission institution.  Community college enrollment has experienced a noticeable uptick in these desperate economic times.  So, what’s the trend?

Since we were within earshot of fellow college employees, the instructor’s response was whispered, yet firm: “It’s a business.”  As if it was some growing, hustling crime syndicate with spreading tentacles, it wasn’t a glowing endorsement – from a person who was already teaching at two Tri-State area community colleges simultaneously.  What followed was a mumbled diatribe on a place of lowered standards, where high school graduates with limited resources and non-English speaking immigrants looking for prosperity are herded into a system pretty much discouraging intellectual growth and transition into traditional four-year colleges.

Stanford University’s Michael Kirst, a Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration, makes a similar point in his College Puzzle Blog:

Community colleges enroll about 50% of first year students. Most first-time community college students say they feel welcome at their institutions, but few receive information during orientation that is critical to their success. Most say they have the motivation and skills it takes to succeed, but also adopt behaviors that are detrimental to their performance in the classroom.

Can we really classify community colleges as part of the “higher education” continuum?

Understand that’s a difficult question to ask in this climate.  Almost half the nation’s college population attends one of the 1,200 community, technical and junior colleges in the United States.  For many, community colleges are a destination of last resort after weary high school students from struggling low income to working middle class households have few options when staring, jaw dropped, at outrageously high conventional college tuition fees.  The average private 4-year college tuition for the 2009-2010 school year is $26,273, up 4.4 percent from the previous year.  For public 4-year colleges it’s $7,020, up 6.5 percent from the year before.  Public 2-year college tuition rates are rising at an event fast rate: up 7.3 percent from the previous year at an average cost of $2,544.  Fees have had to increase as community colleges have had to do more with less due to state budget cuts driven by fiscal crisis, even as the institutions experience record enrollment.

The Obama Administration’s health care overhaul also included widely celebrated, and needed, changes in the federal student loan program.  The House bill passed in the fall requested $10 billion for community colleges; the new student loan overhaul which removes private banks as “middlemen” dropped that figure to $2 billion for job training alone.

This begs numerous questions about expectations and goals, especially when the President announces the student loan overhaul at Northern Virginia Community College (where, incidentally, enrollment is up 24 percent over 3 years, but state funding is cut by 24 percent).   The jaded community college teacher appears somewhat pessimistic about where all this is going.  There’s an impression of remedial “farms” for the dispossessed and displaced, a dark sub-academic frontier for poor folks and immigrants feeling their way to a fantasy of milk and honey.  It keeps society’s undesirables from realizing success – and far away from 4-year institutions more concerned with bottom line and dreams of ivory tower prestige.  New America Foundation’s Camille Esch and Richard Whitmire are also critical in their assessment:

[T]he U.S. has stalled, leaving it behind at least 10 other developed nations in [college] educational attainment. Many … new community college students arrive with the kind of life circumstances that make it hard to succeed in school: limited financial resources, demanding family obligations, or difficulty finding transportation or child care. Many students come to community college from crowded or dysfunctional K-12 systems that haven’t adequately prepared them. [A]n estimated 60 percent of entering community college students need some kind of remedial coursework before they can qualify for regular college classes that count toward a degree.  Making matters worse, virtually all community colleges operate in state policy environments that do little to encourage or reward success. On average, per student funding at community colleges is less than half of that at four-year research universities. There are limited quality controls: community colleges are neither rewarded for success nor penalized for failure. Few studies exist about community colleges and their effectiveness.

As we enter recovery, class divides are becoming more prominent and, ultimately, defined by level of education. Is an Associate’s Degree the path to success?  And, are community college students being deliberately held back – in some instances forced into cycles of “core” or prerequisite classes for four years instead of finishing in two?  The last question underscores the point about it being “a business.”  Are community colleges using socio-economic desperation as their business model, keeping many students locked in from finishing and moving into a 4-year college?  True: community colleges play a vital role in helping students make important first steps, but why is there a perception of seemingly endless job training and remedial coursework with little promise of serious career advancement?  Why the extra – and, perhaps, unnecessary – layer in the long and expensive road to a Bachelor’s degree?  Maybe it’s time to consider merging community colleges and public high school districts to create a universal college preparatory system.  Otherwise, it’s hard to shake that feeling of wasted time … and money.

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