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Apr. 8 2010 - 2:56 pm | 147 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

The promise and pitfalls of community colleges

I’ve always admired people who go to community college as a part of their postsecondary education, in part because I don’t know if I could have done it. To me, the college experience is about much more than going to class. It’s about student clubs, intramural sports, frisbee on the quad, football Saturdays, rushing the court after a big basketball victory, huge house parties on the weekend, and 2am meals at the greasy spoon diners around campus. So the idea of going to community college, where most of these things don’t exist and where the focus is squarely on school, does not seem too attractive to me. I seriously question if I would have had the drive or focus to get through that experience successfully.

For that reason, and because I know friends and family members who have gone to community colleges in a number of states, for a variety of purposes, and with both positive and negative experiences, I was happy to finally watch Discounted Dreams, a 2007 documentary about community colleges (available through Netflix). Through interviews with community college teachers, in-depth profiles of four community college students, and commentary from others in the world of higher education, the film gives a comprehensive look at this large and important piece of our nation’s education system. A big chunk of the film looks at the challenges facing community colleges and their students, including funding, enrollment and graduation, remedial coursework, and quality of teaching. Among the things I learned while watching:

– There are 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and they enroll approximately 12 million students (half of all undergraduates in the country).

– Half of all community college students work full time, and one third have families.

– Community colleges train 60% of our country’s nurses.

– Half of the students who attend community colleges never graduate, and two thirds of those who hope to transfer to a four-year college or university don’t end up doing so.

If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend watching this well-produced documentary. For more information, visit the Discounted Dreams web site and watch the film’s trailer below.


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  1. collapse expand

    I have a bachelor’s degree I earned nearly 30 years ago in Boston at a traditional four-year school. Loved the experience; wouldn’t trade it for anything. But now I’m going to a community college in California on a full-time basis after deciding to change careers. With two teenage kids, one of whom will be off to college himself in two years at considerable expense, the community college route is very affordable ($26/credit!!!) and a comparable education to one at the state university nearby at a third of the cost. How do I know? Because most of my instructors teach there, too.

    For my children, I agree that college is more than just the sum of the classes they take–it’s a right of passage and a lesson in self-sufficiency. But community college also serves the children of the working class for whom going away to a four-year school is cost prohibitive. It’s also great for those late-bloomer kids who really haven’t yet figured out what they want to do with themselves, and this gives them another avenue to explore options with little financial risk. And lastly, for kids who may not have made it into the UC system as high school seniors, community colleges can provide that bridge. They get priority as transfer admissions candidates as juniors. I think these schools provide a great service to the community and every bit as valuable as other paths to higher ed.

  2. collapse expand

    I think most people who attend community colleges don’t have the money to go to a 4-year college or don’t have the grades. Community colleges are known for their 2-year Associate Degree programs that specialize in a certain area of interest where a 4-year degree may not be required. I did find it interesting that so many community college students never obtain their 2-year degree or moved onto a 4-year college. I’d be curious to find out why. Also, how many students complete their 4-year degree?

  3. collapse expand

    After thinking about the statistics regarding students not finishing their studies at community colleges and/or moving on to a university, I would like to comment on my experience while attending a community college to study gerontology. First, I was in my late 40’s and was pretty much the oldest student in my classes. I noticed that alot of students in my classes did not have access to a home computer and some did not know how to type (although the campus had plenty of computers for students to use); leaving the professor accepting hand-written papers. I mention that because the professor said most of the hand-writing was not legible and the grammar was terrible and many papers were returned to be done over. Also, many students in my classes
    did not speak well when giving a presentation. My point is that many students were not ready for the community-college experience. This may be a direct reflection on being “pushed” and “passed” through their entire education when they were not ready and did not earn their right to a high school diploma.

    • collapse expand

      I agree…community colleges are often asked to do things that should have been taken care of by high schools. Then again, high schools are asked to do things that should have been taken care of in middle or elementary schools. I think a big problem is that when kids get behind academically–whether it’s at age 5 or age 10 or age 15–our public school system does not have built in mechanisms to swoop in and provide major support to catch that student up and ensure s/he doesn’t get behind again. I’ll be writing about this issue in my April column for GOOD (http://www.good.is).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.