Friday, July 17, 2009

Obama, Community Colleges, and the Future of Us All

I have a talent for graduating in the midst of great economic downturns. I finished high school in 1983 and went to school in Newberry, South Carolina, a small town that had been almost wiped out by Reagan's recession, as all the poultry processing plants closed. In 1992, I finished my Ph.D. in the midst of one of the great economic contractions of the last part of the 20th century (though not as big as the one 10 years earlier).

I got a full-time job offer from a community college and grabbed it, even though I got a Ph.D. hoping to go to a small, liberal arts college, like the one where I went to undergraduate school. I've worked in a variety of educational settings, but I'll always have a fondness for community colleges. When I taught at community colleges, I've always known that I was making a difference in people's lives. I was helping them to have another chance. I knew the odds were stacked against some of them. But I also got to see some of them succeed beyond what should have been possible, given the odds against them.

I love David Brooks op-ed piece in The New York Times today. He starts off this way: "If you visit a four-year college, you can predict what sort of student you are going to bump into. If you visit a community college, you have no idea. You might see an immigrant kid hoping eventually to get a Ph.D., or another kid who messed up in high school and is looking for a second chance. You might meet a 35-year-old former meth addict trying to get some job training or a 50-year-old taking classes for fun." So true.

Later in the piece, he seems to fault these schools: "Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low." Or is he faulting all schools?

Most higher ed institutions lose an appalling amount of students. I've taught in almost every setting, and the graduation rates are shockingly low across the board. Student engagement is another constant subject, especially as more and more students have to work to pay for school. And remedial classes are a bone of contention most places, except for community colleges. Most community colleges accept that part of their mission is to help students fill in the gaps left by their high school educations.

I'll be interested to see the effects of Obama's plan for community colleges. My favorite analysis of Obama's speech is Dean Dad's post over at the Confessions of a Community College blog. Community colleges have done amazing things during the past 50 years as they've saved people one by one. Maybe it will be community colleges that save our communities (and thus, the nation) as we head into this brave new century.


Karen J. Weyant said...

Love your piece -- I teach at a community college -- mostly developmental --- and I would love to see these schools take a more important role in the future of America.

However, I have to say (because I always say this) that I see quite a few kids in my developmental classes who did not finish high school. Thus, I am not filling in the gaps high school missed! I'm actually trying to fill in for much more...

And about standards...I'm amused about the so called "standards" issue that people seem to throw at community colleges. I can say that I am not impressed with the so called high standards of four year schools! (Didn't our past president go to a prestigious school?) -- I just reread Brooks article (and while I agree with him on many points), I have to laugh about the "poor accountability" of community colleges -- community college students often quit going to school because of their own personal lives, not because of the college itself!

People are getting excited about Obama's plan and money. I am skeptical. I was once (gasp!) excited about No Child Left Behind.

Kristin said...

Thanks! Glad to know that I didn't accidentally say something insulting to those still in the community college trenches. And you're right--your mission is so much broader!