Learn Something New Every Day!

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.


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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

Comments on: "In Praise of Community Colleges" (11)

  1. Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey was required reading in my freshman English class. Just attended our faculty inservice for fall last night. Add online courses that will serve even more students on site, in other cities and states and abroad. I will be teaching one of those this fall using ANGEL. My postings may be limited to once a week and my reading may become curtailed a bit because I will be tending my course from my chair that swivels and rocks.

    • That would be a great text for a writing class and for students that age! Good luck with the online teaching. I completed lots of courses in that format and it can be a great experience, but it is a lot of work for the teacher. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Great post! My husband is a community college administrator for Tidewater Community College here in Hampton Roads. It has campuses in five communities: Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and Suffolk. Billboards are everywhere that advertise, “From here, go anywhere,” because, once you finish at TCC, if you did well, you are guaranteed entrance into any state school here, including William and Mary. I whole heartedly agree with you about the value of community colleges.

    • Thanks for sharing. That transfer agreement sounds terrific–we have some of those here but college by college. I just wish more people knew the value of community colleges!

  3. Deborah the Closet Monster said:

    Before I became pregnant, I’d mapped out my path to medicine. I tried enrolling in Chemistry (the base course for the programs I was interested in) only to discover each class–throughout Los Angeles County–was not only full but had a waitlist dozens of students long. I emailed and called dozens of professors only to determine that community college wasn’t apt to be a good solution for a L.A.-based working, heavily indebted professional (a) working standard business hours and (b) interested in pursuing medicine.

    Obviously I’m not sweating it too much now, but I do wonder what it will be like when I reconsider the question in a decade or so! I hope I’ll find a situation more akin to my earlier experience. I hated high school, so I spent half my time during my combined junior/senior year of high school at the high school and the other half at the college. I took a lot of core courses there without having to take on any debt, which was a lovely thing!

    One of my community college profs in particular set in motion the course I’m on now. Doing my project for his Marine Bio class led me to my love of killer whales, which in turn led me to be a research assistant at Orcalab the summer I turned 18. We kept in touch for a few years after that and it was such a joy to hear him say, “I use you as a shining example of what students can become!” 🙂

    Despite not getting in to any Chem classes here in recent years, I remain overwhelmingly grateful for their existence and the path they provide folks to better lives. ♥

    • I am thrilled to hear about your experience in the Marine Bio class! Thanks for sharing.

      How hard it is to get into a specific class is also a common story–and getting even more challenging as class sections are reduced because of budget. But–with patience–most students can enroll in the courses they want. Brand new students have a harder time, because students priority for registration goes up as they complete more units. Plus, the wait list system does work. For some classes, the wait list cycles through maybe 40 or 50 people before the class even starts as people’s schedules change from plan to reality, especially when students have to initially enroll well ahead of when the class starts. Hopefully things will work out if/when you go back.

  4. I sincerely wish that I had done community college and then transferred to a four year. It’s what I had planned for myself, but was encouraged to go the four-year route and that’s what I did. To be honest, I don’t know that I was ready to leave home yet. That’s another benefit of community college. It’s all the same experience, with the exception of living at home. My nephew is going to start local and then see where he wants to go. He’s also a homebody and I’m thinking this is a good decision for him. Great education, live at home, less money. That’s a win, win, win situation

    • Thanks for sharing. You are so right that the cost savings is tremendous. One anecdote from my experience had a young woman who was determined to get away to a 4-year school. Her parents were willing to help pay but knew that the cost at a 4-year school would be huge, so they struck a deal. She started taking some classes at the local community college when she was still in high school–always a possibility. Then she lived at home for a year and with taking full loads and summer school, she completed her courses to transfer as a junior in a little over a year after high school. She lived at home, pleaseing her parents. Her parents saved the dollars for the cost of the school–and they were even able to buy her a car to take with her when she did leave home just a bit later than she had wanted. It was a win, win for all. And some students just need the atmosphere of a community college while others will thrive in an away-from-home setting. Finding the right fit is important.

  5. Many of my ESL students started in the community college–learning English first and then many had transferred to four-year colleges. The ESL program fosters community within the department and encourages students to seek friendship outside of the group by assigning mentors. For my, then, student population a community college was not as threatening as a larger campus. I thought of my experience as more like family.

  6. I work in the Workforce Development side of the shop in the Washington State Community College system. My particular programs helps low-income students get a start on their education and training.

    I can attest first hand to the value of all the wrap around support services the Community College provides students. We love the students in our department and nothing is a bigger kick than watching them find their feet, flap their wings and feel ready to take flight.

    • Thanks for sharing! And I so agree: Watching students, especially those who are struggling or are new to college, take flight and embrace their educational potential is the best thing about teaching! I love seeing them realize their dreams–both having them and reaching them.

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