I have been teaching at a community college since the mid-1980’s, and I have watched a lot of students come and go, graduate and drop out; however, community colleges have become a major focus of education discussions since the advent of the “Complete College America” campaign. While I certainly agree that students are better off if they finish college rather than starting and not finishing, but it’s critical to think about why students come to college and why they should.
Community colleges are, generally, hybrid institutions, providing both the first two years of a four-year education and skill -based, technical certificates and degrees, including but not limited to welding, nursing, dental hygiene or culinary arts. This dual role often creates a certain kind of tension in these colleges, a tension that is often healthy, but also sometimes difficult.
Many of the students coming to community college are first generation college students. They come from families where their parents have encouraged them to go to college, but who have little idea what that means except that their children will get better jobs with a degree, and it is statistically true that those with degrees do better than those that do not .
However, the picture is more complicated than that and we are doing our students a disservice if we do not squarely face the truth that for many fields a two-year degree is worthless. A two-year degree in English, Psychology, History or Economics, for example, will not get someone a job in those fields. These fields require not only a BA but more than likely a Ph.D. Our students, in general, are naïve about how much education they will need to succeed in these fields. In general, this kind of education is out of reach for our students because of cost, but also because they have no experience making long term plans that this kind of education requires. I talked with a student recently who wanted to complete a two-year degree in English. She works as a cake decorator at Wal-Mart. A two-year degree in English will insure that she continues to be a cake decorator. If she wants the two year degree because she enjoys English classes, that is fine, but she should be under no illusion that she will get an English job. Her degree will be for her own pleasure, but that really is all.
On the other hand, if a student thinks that she will get a useful degree in two years, she needs to think about a technical degree. Even here, however, it may well take more than two years. For example, an Associate Degree in Nursing usually requires two years of prerequisites before beginning the two-year nursing degree.
A few days ago, I asked some of my students why they were in college. One of them said that her parents had told her and her sister to go to college because the parents had not done so. I asked her if she had a goal for her education. She told me she did not. I told her that she might as well be working at McDonalds if she had no idea why she was in school. (This is a student who has missed more than two weeks of class. She is clearly not invested in education.) Coming to college without any sense of why one is there is a waste of the student’s time and money and a waste of teachers’ time.
Community college is not a magic ticket to success. All degrees are not created equal. We need to stop pushing college to all students. We need to demonstrate to prospective college students that they need to plan beyond the abstraction of “I am going to college”. Parents with no college education need to be helped to understand that their children will not do well in college unless they have some understanding of what college means and doesn’t mean. There may well be students for whom working at McDonalds is a better choice.