For most community colleges, classes are starting up about now—yesterday, soon, this week or next. That means a lot of students are settling into class schedules and homework routines. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are almost 1200 private and public community colleges across the country. Collectively, they serve over 12 million students a year, representing 44% of all under graduates enrolled throughout the country. On average, the cost to attend one of the public community colleges is only about $2700 a year for tuition and fees. The California Community Colleges, the largest public education system in the world, serve over 2.9 million students through 112 colleges up and down the state. For those students, the cost is only $26 a unit, plus parking and books, which totals less than $800 a semester for a full load. No wonder a community college education is said to be the best deal in higher education.
But that value is not all that is triggering my praise for community colleges, especially those throughout California. What I praise even more is the quality of the service and education those students receive. I have been in education for over 30 years, serving mainly at community colleges as both a teacher and an administrator. Most of my experience has been in California. Of course, I realize no institution is perfect, just as not all students are perfect. But students—all students, new or returning, bound for transfer or workforce development, exploring options or looking for a second or third chance—get a quality education and lots of personalized attention.
The quality education is offered in three general areas: basic skills, work force development, and transfer preparation. Students can review general communication skills, master skills needed for academic excellence or job promotion, explore majors and job pathways, complete the first 2 years of an advanced degree, or learn the skills needed for a specialized job such as nursing, construction, law enforcement or computer design. The coursework is supported by such services as assessment, tutoring, counseling, student government, financial aid, scholarships, internships, and specialized workshops.
The courses and services are grounded on the ideal of open access: any student can attend who can benefit from the instruction. The ongoing budget crisis might imply that open access is being diminished as the colleges have to reduce the courses and services they can offer. But in reality, the education and service available for those who do attend is still incredibly high. To clarify how open access can be maintained even in face of budget constraints, Dr. George B. Vaughan, editor of Community College Review offered the following statement in 2003: “To be true to their mission, community colleges must serve all segments, but not all members of society. There is a big difference in the two commitments.”
But the continuing promise of open access is not enough. The power of community colleges comes from the group experiences offered through classes, services, and extra-curricular activities, but also from the personalized feedback provided individually for each student. That personalized contact comes from teachers and counselors, to be sure, but also from staff members and secretaries, tutors, librarians, coaches, financial aid workers, teaching and lab assistants, even custodians, groundskeepers and administrators. In fact, it is often the staff member who helps the student learn the system, track the paperwork and find the special services that help the students achieve success.
In fact, research on student retention suggests that students are most apt to stay in college when they feel noticed and recognized as an individual, missed if absent, part of a team. That recognition and thus encouragement to return day after day, night after night comes from classes and scheduled services, of course, but also from people they interact with outside of class:
- secretary who offers a cheerful “good morning” every day when the student arrives early because that is when her bus drops her off,
- dean who provides an apple, yogurt or maybe just a piece of chocolate to the student rushing to class straight from work,
- tutor showing how to study better for that next math test,
- teacher providing a word of encouragement during an extended office hour or maybe sharing a special book or article,
- financial aid worker who explains when the check will arrive and how to seek a loan to help buy books until then,
- other students who want to study together in a group,
- teacher who knows the student’s name and says “We missed you in class yesterday” or provides extra study sessions,
- custodian who chats with the student and suggests the best places to park on campus,
- staff member who directs the student to a classroom that is a bit difficult to find, or
- faculty advisor who directs students to a club or special project that eventually sparks the student’s career interest.
This list could go on and on. Think back to your own educational experience, at any level. What do you remember that made the class or the subject special to you? I doubt if it is a textbook or isolated lecture. Instead, I bet it’s a specific person and the corresponding personal contact that sparked you to tackle a new subject, try a little harder, or feel proud about your efforts and accomplishments. Please share your stories through comments, especially if you attended a community college!
In short, community colleges deserve our praise for a variety of reasons, including that they are economical, open to all, provide quality education and service, and—most importantly—make a difference because of the special care and attention offered to students from all who serve on campus. It is this special make-a-difference aspect of community colleges that makes me think the star-fish story that most of us have heard as an adaptation of Loren Eiseley’s “The Star Thrower” is a fair representation of the power of community colleges.
HERE’S MY VERSION OF THE STAR FISH STORY:
A major storm hit the coast, stronger than the village had seen in years. The waves crashed higher onto the shore than they ever had, depositing hundreds of star fish onto the beach. The morning came, and the sky was bright blue. All along the beach, above the usual tide line, the star fish were trapped, unable to return to the safety and promise of the sea.
Two individuals were walking the beach that morning. The first seemed to be dancing as she moved along, stopping to pick up a star fish and fling it as far as she could back into the sea, before she danced on. She repeated this process over and over. The second watched her from afar, shaking his head at her actions. When he caught up to her, he admonished her actions as futile: “If you are trying to save these star fish, you have no chance. There are too many of them to get them back into the sea. You may as well leave them be. There is no way you can make a difference.” The young woman shook her head no, as she reached down and picked up another star fish, throwing it back to the sea. Then she smiled and said, “I made a difference for this one.” And she continued to dance down the beach, throwing star fish after star fish.
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Thank goodness for all the community colleges across the country that make a difference for their students. Margaret Mead did not have community colleges in mind when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” But the faculty and staff certainly help change the world for their students. If you know a student attending college, applaud their efforts and encourage them to stay with the program. If you know someone who works at a community college, express your thanks as they continue to make a difference for the students.
If you want to find a California Community College near you, go to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office website.
The literature review in my doctoral dissertation provides an historical review of the growth of community colleges and what they provide students in terms of programs and services. If you want to review the details, you can do so on my website.