I was aware of the prejudices in ‘elite’ circles against community colleges before I sent my daughter off to one, but got a fresh taste of that sort of judgment – from people across the political spectrum – over the last couple of years. One (ahem) friend literally laughed in my face when she learned where my young’un was going to school.
Yet it was a wonderful space of learning for my bright, intrepid child – different than if she’d completed those 2 years at a public university or small liberal arts college, but different in its own valuable way, not different-as-lesser.
In the more distant past, I worked with immigrant students in ESL in a program through Houston Community College. I have friends who teach in community colleges in Alabama or around the country – and others who have attended them for useful professional skills or for the beginning or shifting point of a postsecondary academic career.
Community colleges make space for 1st generation college students, for returning college students, for the curious, the professionally ambitious, the poor, the intimidated, the unconventional, the cost-conscious, the brilliant, and the struggling.
They have technical career programs that will train young (and not so young) people to make more money with a 2-year degree than I’ll ever earn with multiple graduate degrees.
They have liberal arts courses that introduce students to critical thinking and the breadth of human knowledge.
They prepare students – many of whom have been underprepared by their high schools – for work, for further education, and for life.
In an age of the ridiculous (and I mean ridiculous) explosion of college costs*, they remain relatively affordable (and ought to be even more so, but that’s a discussion for another day).
*(through the ongoing neoliberal commodification of higher education – but that’s also a discussion for another day)
They can be found in remote rural areas, downtown urban areas, and smack in the middle of suburban office parks — and online.
Community colleges get far fewer resources than they deserve – and are burdened by arcane higher-level institutional bureaucratic decisions that come with devaluing and disrespect. They are often political footballs in the larger context of public postsecondary power struggles.
That’s a shame. We as a society ought to give them not only our full respect, but stellar resources, and should prioritize nurturing learning environments over institutional inertia, political power games, and our misguided stigmas.
Dr. Jill Biden’s doctoral dissertation – Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs – is exactly the kind of useful research we need in this world – and the knowledge and commitment of her and people like her represent a great hope for this country.
If you meet someone who tells you they attend a community college, say to them “Awesome! [and mean it – and not in a condescending way] What are you studying?”
If you meet someone who teaches or has a staff position in a community college, say to them “What meaningful work! I bet it’s really interesting to teach such a wide range of students.” [and mean it – and not in a condescending way]
Advocate for community colleges in the political arena. Let’s make sure they get the funding and support they need.
And most of all: respect community colleges and their students and their faculty and staff. Real respect. Seriously. Please. Especially if life has sent you through higher education in ‘elite institutions.’
Because few things are more contemptible than privilege having contempt for gritty, real, human, everyday, beautiful effort.