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Apr. 9 2010 - 9:38 pm | 238 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Was Chris Rock wrong about community college?

For many people, the term “community college” brings to mind, before anything else, the words of Chris Rock from his 1996 HBO special, Bring The Pain:

Only college you can go to with a GED? Community college. You know why they call it community college? ‘Cause anybody in the community can go. Crackhead, prostitute, drug dealer—come on in. Community college is like a disco with books. ‘Here’s ten dollars. I’m gonna get my learn on.’”

(See it below, from 2:00-2:25. Don’t watch the first two minutes unless you’re comfortable with a lot of profanity.)

(Here’s a more recent commentary on community college from comedian Michael Jr.)

Following my most recent post on the documentary Discounted Dreams, I want to highlight a story from this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine about the increasing attractiveness of community colleges to high school graduates. Though this story focuses primarily on students from two community colleges in the DC area–Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and Montgomery College–some of the trends are nationwide. Since Discounted Dreams was released in 2007,

Enrollment at the nation’s 1,173 community colleges, which includes technical and junior colleges, has spiked. According to the AACC [American Association of Community Colleges], from 2007 to 2009, enrollment rose by 17 percent on average. At NOVA, however, enrollment rose by 24 percent, or 11,000 students, in the past three years. Convenience and cost are big reasons. Average annual tuition at community colleges, where students typically earn a two-year associate’s degree or some form of certification, is $2,554, compared with more than $7,000 at four-year public institutions and much more at private colleges.”

But what really caught my attention were the descriptions of the colleges that had nothing to do with finances. For example, where I made the point in my last post that community college would not have been attractive to me due to the lack of student activities and other components of the “traditional college experience,” the story notes that

community colleges are adding more rigorous courses and programs and expanding student activities. Students can join the hockey or lacrosse teams at NOVA and can earn credits through summer travel experiences, such as rock climbing in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. At Montgomery College, students can intern at the Smithsonian Institution or join the campus metalheads club. And at Prince George’s Community College, students might catch a lecture by famed micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, who creates art so small it can fit in the eye of a needle.

Students who are attending community college straight out of high school are looking for more of the stereotypical college experience, said Robert Temlin Jr., NOVA’s president. ‘Many of these students are full-time, and they want a program of student activities and cultural events and things to do besides go to class,’ Temlin said.”

The story also describes the adjustments community colleges are making in order to enroll higher-achieving students. One example is the Montgomery Scholars,

a specialty program started in 1999 and designed by passionate professors aimed at some of the brightest students the college can attract. The Montgomery Scholars program accepted 26 students on full scholarship this school year out of 276 who applied. The range for admission is a grade-point average of between 3.0 and 4.0. The scholarship is funded from the school’s operating budget. Students take the majority of their general courses together for two years with the same core teachers. Over the summer, they travel–again for free–to Cambridge University in England to study and at the end of the program craft a 20-page paper and present an independent study topic on globalization.”

It is worth noting that the community colleges surrounding Washington, DC, or those in the California system, likely provide more academic and extracurricular options than most others. Still, my eyes have been opened to some of the exciting changes occurring in the community college system as more and more high schoolers choose to spend some of their postsecondary careers there. The challenge, which John Merrow and others discuss in Discounted Dreams, is convincing politicians and voters that these extremely underfunded centers of education are worthy of more taxpayer assistance.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Salmonowicz,

    I am surprised that you are surprised at the value of a community college education. I have attended three different colleges, Los Angeles City College, California State University, Los Angeles, and UCLA (I graduated from there twice). There is no doubt that dollar for dollar LACC was the best value. The other two schools were good too of course but they cost a great deal more. Now most people are much more impressed with my degrees from UCLA as opposed to LACC but the irony is that a huge portion of the graduates from UCLA (and all of the other UC Campuses) are community college transfer students. Something like 30 – 40% of graduating seniors at UCLA transferred there after completing their lower division work at a local community college. In fact UCLA has full time recruiters who go to community colleges to fill up their depleted junior classes. What few people realize is the there is an enormous drop out rate at UCLA (and at most “big name” schools). At UCLA, typically 45% of the incoming freshmen do not make it to their junior year. So fill those empty seats, transfer students are needed and those are most students form community colleges.

    Beyond that, community colleges are a much better way for students to mature a bit before jumping into some big, high pressure school. Also some students just freak out at a big university “OMG, what am I doing here?” No one does that at a community college. Further you get much more face time with professors, assuming you even get a professor to teach your class. Something like 50% of classes are taught by either adjunct staff or grad students.

    I knew a fellow who had graduated from Sonoma State University in geology and got into UCLA as Geochemistry grad student. They told him “You need a job, you are going to teach ‘Introduction to Oceanography’”. When he pointed out that he did not actually know very much about oceanography they told him that that was OK. They handed him 20 binders with lecture notes for two lectures per week for one quarter. So he had one or two hundred lower division students, reading notes aloud. When I took that same class at LACC my professor was a real oceanographer and there were about 30 or so students in the classroom. More to point, he had regular office hours where I could talk with him about the class. There is no doubt I learned more oceanography at LACC than those poor souls at UCLA while paying a fraction of the money. Undergraduates in the oceanography department were called “plankton”.

    It is just an all around better deal, financially, educationally, and emotionally.

  2. collapse expand


    Its been a long time old friend… I’m catching up on all your writings here and just wanted to share this tidbit of information about Lansing Community College for some more “blow your mind” kind of stuff that you seem to be coming across these days:


    Also, marginally related, check out the TV show called “Community” on NBC, its hilarious!

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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.