Wednesday, December 12, 2007


The Walk of Shame

This is a dirty little industry secret.

In some necks of the woods – moneyed ones, especially – this is the time of year when we start to see a parade of young men and women with hangdog expressions and very angry parents. The students went 'away' to expensive residential colleges in September, and partied their way to a GPA that starts with a zero. Come December or January, their parents drag them to the local cc as a sort of combination boot camp and purgatory, usually with some sort of “improve or else” mandate to the student.

(I've had some remarkably frank discussions with parents who say things like “I'm not paying twenty thousand dollars per semester for him to cut class! He can cut class here for much less!” It's hard to argue with logic like that.)

It's a delicate situation. We take all comers, including those who haven't quite pulled their stuff together yet. We're all about second chances, knowing full well that 18 year olds sometimes overdo it a bit when they get their first escape from parental supervision. Some will prosper with the second chance, and some won't. We know that from the start.

But there's really no graceful way to advertise this.

“Repent Your Sins! Start Over at Nearby CC!”

“What Happened at Snooty U Stays at Snooty U.”

“Dorm-Free since 1963!”

And it doesn't do much for office morale when students and their parents openly refer to enrolling at your college as a form of punishment. It's often followed by the always endearing “if you do well here, you can transfer to a real college.”


Serving these students is part of our mission. We're glad to do it, and I'm sure that some of these students actually use the second chance productively and get back on track. (I haven't seen any numbers on this group specifically, and I imagine the data gathering would be a bit delicate.) But it's a mission we really don't discuss much, and that few folks are comfortable embracing publicly.

So I'll just float it on the internet, and hope that readers who see students in this situation think of the local cc as a viable option for a do-over. Just be very, very diplomatic when you make the suggestion.

I'm so glad you blog! Your perspective is needed out there. I'm married to a college professor (who introduced me to your blog) and I've listened to many professors at traditional colleges discuss community colleges in ways that are less than positive. You write about community colleges in a way that is fair, enlightening, and interesting to read.
I always bristle at the implication that our CC isn't a real college -- and then I look at my syllabus for ways to make it more rigorous.
I was once an eighteen year old who partied her way out of a four-year school and turned to the local cc to "repent." Admittedly, I was not excited about switching to the cc, but it was infinitely better than going home! Ultimately, I did quite well and transferred to a different four-year university after earning my A.A. I'm now ABD at an R1 university (success story? we'll see...).
My point is that you and your staff have every right to be proud of the opportunities that you offer your students--whether they're "real" college rejects or people who are actually seeking an education. My local cc, to be blunt, saved my ass--and I'm not ashamed to admit it!
I didn't party my way back home to the local CC, but needed surgery and therapy and couldn't stay at my far-away 4-year university. I ended up finishing up at the CC with great grades, went back to the university and now . . . I teach at a university. I can still name most of my professors at the CC--I can't say that for my four-year university. More importantly, out of the top five professors I have ever had, two taught me at that CC. I am proud to have gone there, and tell many students that.
I actually have quite a few STUDENTS who are up-front and open about the fact that they went away to school, screwed the pooch, and are now taking a second chance to get back on track.

But most of them are pretty grateful for the opportunity and aren't treating it like a punishment. I get a pretty even mix of "I screwed up five years ago and had to do minimum wage jobs and/or a 12-step program to get back on track" and "I screwed up last semester and my parents are FURIOUS." But even with the latter, the experience has usually helped make them a little more self-aware and they're usually taking the opportunity to do at the CC what the state U doesn't offer -- study skills assistance, help acculturating to the higher level of work, a lack of dorm-based distractions.
Yes, I taught those students when I was at a CC-- I also had several kids who went away on athletic scholarships and found they couldn't juggle both, so they take a year off, play in CC teams, and see if they can go back after that with no scholarship.

CCs are so important in so many ways, so I'm with Jenny-- thanks for blogging from the inside :).
When I taught at a CC my FAVORITE students were the ones who'd screwed up at the local big-name university and come to our CC to start over again. Maybe I was lucky, because the students I knew took long enough to screw up that they ended up working miserable, physical jobs long enough to see the value in the degree they'd drunk themselves out of at the university. By the time they got to me they WANTED that damn degree, and they were going to do the work to get it!

Maybe some of the students and parents you're seeing, Dean Dad, are still too emotionally burned to be able to put their experiences in perspective. But the students may become some of your best.
Teach at a CC and yes I see them usually still wearing their fraternity or sorority t shirts. They seem to go through stages 1)Oh this is going to be high school all over again; 2)Oh sh** this really is college; then hopefully 3) This really is hard but that professor seems really interesting in teaching me.
Those students are the ones who are surprised by our relatively smaller class sizes. Some are surprised by my comp class using the exact same texts as they were using at big name u. Some are surprised by how smart many of the other students are. ah well.
We call them "rebound" students, at least among ourselves. You're right, it's a hard concept to market, but it happens pretty often. We serve a fairly rural area; a lot of the time the issue is not academic preparedness but the culture shock of living away from home--not only the lack of parental supervision aspect, but also a lack of prior exposure to other lifestyles and perspectives. The kids get overwhelmed by all the changes and need to regroup (and gain some maturity).

One thing we do market, with some success, is summer courses for students bound for - or already attending - 4 year schools. We focus on small class size, quality and credentials of faculty, transferability, etc. The last time I taught a summer course (intro stats), about half the students were enrolled here and about half were home for the summer from various state universities plus several private SLACs and Us as well.
1. I'm surprised you can't track those students. Our admission data always includes "transfer from post secondary" and we could (I don't think we bother, yet) code that for where they came from just as we code FTIC students who need 2 or more prep classes differently from those who don't. You can't work on what you can't measure.

2. We don't have to recruit those students because Wannabe Flagship U sends them directly to us. They can stay in the same apartment, drink with the same friends (they don't last long), wear the same colors, but drive to a different parking lot.

3. And, yes, they are generally surprised at the rigor here. Yes, we have our share of classes with extra credit, but it is impossible to hide behind a number in ones taught in classes that might be 1/10 the size of ones at a big school.
It's not just cc's that serve this function. Regional, non-residential, four-year campuses in a state university system do as well. And it's somewhat more problematic for the students to use the regional campuses this way, because the grades they earned while partying remain on their trnascripts. My favorite success story is the student who arrived in my intro class with 30 hours of F from the flagship campus. To end up with 120 hours of credit (150 on the transcript) with an overall 2.5 still isn't all that hard--it means a 2.5 cumulative GPA here. This student did that and more--nearly a 4.0 here, graduated with honors, got admitted to a high-prestige MBA program. Quite a success, and a result of the student's determination to do things right. The fact that we were here to make it possible was cool; the student's work was super-cool.
Uh, that should have been:
"To end up with 120 hours of credit (150 on the transcript) with an overall 2.5..."
One more time, because I am brain dead. That should have been:

To end up with 120 hours of credit (150 on the transcript) with an overall 2.0..."
I'll stick my neck out a little ways here to say that I think the education students get in California community colleges (remember, we're talking about freshman and sophomore lower-division classes) is at least as good, and maybe even better, than what they get in their lower-division coursework at UC Berkeley or UCLA. Or Stanford or Harvard or Yale.

Why? Smaller classes ('way, 'way smaller)and personal contact with experienced teachers, not TA's working on a Ph.D.

Of course, I can't prove any of this, but I hope my own 14-year-old son will attend CC after enjoying high school, rather than trying to get a 4.5 GPA while padding his resume with the Pep Club or student government popularity contests.


Philip, I taught freshman comp at a UC campus as a grad student and am now teaching the same transferable course at a California CC. There's no question in my mind that I am doing a much better job now, w/years of teaching under my belt, and that my students at the CC are learning more than my UC students did. (Some of them are weaker writers than most UCLA freshmen, but some are as good or better.) I too am leaning toward dreaming of a CC first for my kid, then UCLA, Berkeley, UCSD, Santa Cruz...
I can both agree with everything said here and say that it completely misses why students who can do the work should go to a research university asap.

First, a major benefit of going to a research university is that on the whole the students are smarter, and have studied harder in HS. The interaction with other students is as, if not more important than the lectures.

Second, the courses at research universities are closer to the state of the art and the faculty has a greater range of expertise. The links of the faculty to others in the field on the national and international level are much stronger. Students who are doing well will quickly get picked off for undergraduate research opportunities and be linked into these networks.

Third, when community college students matriculate at four year schools they compete with students who have had two years to establish relationships and learn the lay of the land (such as which professors to avoid).
Some good points, Eli, but some pertain more to upper division classes at a regional 4-year than to the first two years at a CC.

There is no question that the "fellow student" effect is a big plus at a major university, if you happen to fall in with the right crowd. Even more so if everyone else was a valedictorian also, if you can handle going from star to below average. The biggest challenge at a CC is to build those study groups, but it is a problem we can work on. We are fortunate in that enough of our students transfer to the same programs at Wannabe Flagship that they can carry solid study groups with them.

Faculty expertise can indeed be more of a crap shoot at a CC, but there are plenty of R1 schools that save the best for the grad students.

I disagree on the point that the R1 faculty are better connected to anything other than their research, but then I am looking at it from the perspective of a service course (physics) that feeds into an engineering college. I know that I am better connected to the faculty in that college than the physics faculty at that same university.
My last batch of student evals had this lovely suggestion:

"should teach at a third level comm college"

What's a third level CC? Is that some sort of odd, Dungeons & Dragons for undergrads reference I am unaware of???

Or did the little snowflake mean "third-rate"? Of course, this was meant as a snark against my teaching ability, but the comment leads me to think said student needs what CCs can provide what I could not at the R1: remedial reading & composition classes.

I have an AA from a CC and I think many undergrads need to start there instead of wasting time and money skipping classes at $20K a semester. Hell, my CC would drop us for poor attendance if the prof reported us...wish the R1 would've let me do that!
I spent a year taking introductory-level classes at the local California CC, and I have to admit there were a few good professors there. One Professor Newton taught a physics class easily on par with the best classes I've taken at my Ivy since. But at the same time, the "honors" English professor gave an A to any paper with coherent sentences and my other classes (excluding Chinese) seemed to barely require that I pay attention.

It was geared at a different kind of student, with a different kind of educational background. And for someone like me it wouldn't have been the right place to stay. So I have to agree with Eli: It's not right for everyone. Some people need that atmosphere of high expectations that you get from a tier-1 school.

(as a footnote, my auditorium-size physics classes at the CC were larger than any of my classes at my Ivy. But my friends at state schools have classes several times the size of either.)
I admit it: I used community college as a second-chance sweepstakes my second semester of college. I hadn't flunked out in the fall--just chosen a faraway college that wasn't a good fit for me, so I moved back home to try to figure things out.

At the community college in a city of half a million people, I found myself in classes with people I had last seen in my gifted ed classes in elementary, junior high, and high school. We were in an "honors" program, and I suspect many of the students were there because they didn't get into the schools of their choice, while others scored well on the SAT and had good HS grades (and thus could get into the honors program) but didn't do well in the big wide world of the university.

While it was kind of a treat to be in classes with other refugees from four-year colleges, it was frustrating that the honors program required us to take specific honors classes, even if they repeated courses we had taken elsewhere (e.g. intro geology) or classes in which we had little interest (e.g. music theory). The goal of the counselor was to get us all into UCLA as juniors. When I said I didn't want to go to UCLA, the counselor asked, "then why are you in the honors program?" *sigh*
cc physics prof: You are well connected to a particular university. Good faculty at R1s are connected (and I kid not) worldwide within their field. OTOH, CC faculty are not much different from faculty at most SLACs.
Eli: "cc physics prof: You are well connected to a particular university. Good faculty at R1s are connected (and I kid not) worldwide within their field."

Yes, exactly. If you are ambitious to make high-level research science your career, it's almost mandatory to undergrad in a good place. A major player who is impressed by an REU student will be able to help him or her get a first publication, and get into a world-class lab for grad school. I know a few "constellations" of laboratories that serve as feeder systems for each other, all with high-profile PI's; a student will often be picked up as an undergrad, and after several rounds of training and relocation, become the youngest member of the constellation.

If you don't get into a competitive graduate lab, on the other hand, you will wind up with fewer and lower-status publications than your peers, and you won't make the valuable connections/give talks at the right conferences/get your first student grant/etc. That means that your shot at an academic post that's primarily about research is just about nil. It can be done, but boy does it take effort.

Now, if you want to be a teaching professor, or work in other areas, none of this is necessary. Depends on your life goals, really.
I have a question. I screwed up royally at my out of state college and my parents dragged me home and encouraged me to apply to the local CC which was a GREAT option in the end! I grew up (actually found out that I was severely depressed and with some antidepressants, I can see the sky behind the clouds).

I did not use ANY of my credits form the wasted English etc. I didn't want to remember it ever happened.

But now when I apply to the four year schools (as I have earned my Associates and have a 3.8), do I have to report my first screwed up year since I didn't use any of those classes? Is there SOME way around this...otherwise, I am going to get a job at a gas station and give it in...

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