Friday, August 03, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Do CC Students Miss Out?

A prospective college student writes:

I'm about to start my college career as a freshman at our local community college and today, while searching for articles on community college, I came across your blog. As all my friends are beginning to leave for their four year schools and meet their roommates and have their orientations, now, more than ever, I realize how many of those experiences I won't to get to have. To quote the beginning of an essay in Chicken Soup for the College Soul called College Talk...

"It seemed to come on like the flu. Suddenly, out of nowhere,everyone was talking about college. Lunchtime discussions changed from who's dating whom into who's going to what college and who did or did not get accepted. And just like the flu leaves its victims feeling awful and helpless, such was the case for this new fascinating subject and me.

I don't clearly remember the actual conversations. I do, however,remember why I wasn't interested in all this "college talk." We didn't have enough money for me to go to a real college. I would begin my college years at a junior college. This was the final word and I had accepted it. I didn't even mind terribly. I just wished everyone would stop talking about this university and that Ivy League school.

The truth is, I was jealous. I had worked so hard to get good grades in school and for what? Each time I found out someone else I knew had just been accepted to the college of their dreams I would turn a deeper shade of green. I didn't like feeling this way, but I couldn't help it.It felt like they were going to jump ahead of me. They were going to have the big life experiences that turn a teenager into an adult and I was going to get left behind."

When I read this, it struck a chord. I won't get to have the roommate or the chance to fend for myself away from home. At my graduation, 'college talk' was common. When people found out that I was attending (Local) Community College, the response that I got more often-than-not was "Oh? Community College? I'm sorry." These responses, as well as recent comments from my four-year-school friends has got me thinking, am I missing out on life experiences? I opted for a community college because with five children, my parents can't help me pay for my education and with my current job, community college is about all I can afford if I don't want to be in debt up to my eyeballs in four years. Around here, people think that those who go to community college have a less than remarkable IQ and I can't even count the number of times people have remarked upon this in conversation with me. Truth is, I worked my butt off in high school, fighting for straight A's and good test scores in my honors and AP level classes.

So my question to you is this, what do you believe the rift is between a university and a community college? Education quality, those "life experiences, class size, and anything else you can think of. I want to hear the scope from someone on the inside. I'm sick of all these degrading comments from friends and family, comments are really starting to get to me, I want to know if what they say has any truth what-so-ever.


Since the week began with some reminiscing about the teen years, this is a good way to wrap it up.

There's a lot here – far more than I could do justice to in a single post – so I'll just respond to what I can, and ask my readers to help fill in or correct what I missed or got wrong.

It sounds like the 'college experience' you're wondering about isn't just the academic part, but the other stuff – dorm life, parties, all that. Reading your letter reminded me of my insistence, as a high school senior, on going to college in another state. There were some terrific colleges in my own state, including a few very close by, but I wasn't having it. I wanted, and got, distance. It had nothing to do with the classes or the professors. For my own reasons, I just wanted out.

In some necks of the woods, college is a rite of passage. It's what you do after high school. By the end of high school, especially in relatively affluent and/or educated areas, there's a status competition that goes with it. I'll plead guilty to having fallen for that hook, line, and sinker. My divorced Mom sweated blood – and I worked in an ice factory – to pay my tariff at a Snooty Liberal Arts College. I finally paid off the last loan at age 35. I wanted that Snooty Seal of Approval, and got it.

In some ways, it was a great place – beautiful campus, small classes, great professors, all that. I lived in dorms and did work-study jobs in the cafeteria and the library and joined the campus radio station and the college Democrats and learned that I really didn't like plastic cups of Old Milwaukee. I had my first real girlfriend there, and I'm still occasionally in touch with a few friends from there. But I was still the same person after SLAC that I was before, even with the Seal of Approval.

My wife took a different route. She lived at home and commuted to college – a respected Catholic four-year school less than an hour away. (Many students at four-year schools commute. The “four years of dorm life” version of higher ed is surprisingly rare.) She didn't join campus clubs, but she did make wonderful friends with whom she still hangs today. She has fond memories of college, and got her loans paid off a lot quicker than I did.

I did grad school at a Flagship State University, where the undergrads were herded like cattle from lecture hall to lecture hall, where as often as not they were lectured at (and always graded) by graduate students like me. What they paid tuition for was never clear to me. They mostly lived in dorms for freshman year, then did battle with a nasty off-campus housing market (that is, slums) after that. Then I worked at a proprietary college, where the students had a bracingly utilitarian concept of what college was for, and that was that. Now I work at a cc.

After all that, I can tell you with confidence that who you are, and what you do, will make far more difference than where you go.

A close friend from grad school – one for whom I'll be giving a Best Man Toast next week, in fact – spent a year teaching at my SLAC alma mater a few years ago. Hearing his side of it brought it all back. I remember being nervous all the time when I was there. He said that it was part of what professors had to do. Since the entrance standards there are so tough, the only way not to give all A's is to punish every single little flaw. As a result, the students become intellectually risk-averse. The papers there fit what I remembered – technically proficient, but safe and deadly boring. The graduates of SLAC tended to slot into careers that reward those traits: financial services, consulting (remember that?), medicine, law, higher ed. Very few entrepreneurs.

I was struck, in subsequent stops on my academic tour, at how many risks students were willing to take. Most didn't, of course, and some risks don't work, but the best students had a freedom that I never felt like I had at SLAC. The best students at the more freewheeling places have a worldliness that you just can't fake, because they earn it. SLAC's are academic hothouses in which some delicate breeds are able to flourish, but they don't do well when transplanted. The point is to do well when transplanted.

If you're worried about beer or boyfriends, don't be. There will be plenty of opportunity for both. (A clarinetist I briefly dated once said, in apparent seriousness, “men are like buses. If I miss one, there'll be another in fifteen minutes.” I couldn't decide if that was mere callousness or comic genius.) Dorms are a lot less interesting than they're cracked up to be. Friends will be made wherever, and the upside of the tough job market for professors is that some really great professors can be found just about anywhere.

The downside of a cc is the lack of snob appeal. Simply getting into an elite school is a Seal of Approval in a way that getting into an open-admissions college isn't. CC's fall victim, in the public mind, to the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept you as a member. But you've already proved you're good enough to get in anywhere. It's what you do once you're there that matters.

If you go the cc route, my advice would be to demand from it the fullest experience it can offer. Join a few clubs, plug into the grapevine, look for an Honors program, join Phi Theta Kappa if/when you can, get involved. If you choose to treat it as less than a “real college,” that's what you'll get. But if you take ownership of your experience, you'll be well ahead of your peers elsewhere who drink their way through indifferent studies. And yes, you'll have much lower loan payments when you get out, which means you'll have more options. This is not to be sneezed at.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.