Monday, September 08, 2014

The Largest Major at Community Colleges

I’ll get to the responsible, adult part of the blog shortly.  But first a giddy update: The Dog is home!!!! (Insert mental pic of me doing the Snoopy dance.)  We had some wonderful volunteer helpers who helped us get the word out and used reported sightings to triangulate the best spot for a trap.  Now she’s home!  And she has a GPS collar in her future.

Okay, on to the responsible adult stuff…


Quick: what’s the single most popular major at community colleges in the United States?

That was true at my last college, but I initially attributed that to a fluke of demographics: Morris County, NJ, is a very affluent area, so I assumed that the transfer orientation was largely a focus on money.  But when I came to Holyoke -- the lowest-income city in Massachusetts -- the same was true here, too.  Now it comes out that the same is true nationally.  It’s not just local demographics.

I mention this because it’s almost entirely absent from national discussions of higher education.  In the popular press, “liberal arts” are assumed to be the exclusive province of the affluent, particularly at older small colleges that are full of people who use words like “problematize.”  (I attended one myself, so I know whereof I write.)  When higher ed policy types talk about liberal arts, they usually have in mind literature majors at places like Sarah Lawrence.  Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s only a part of the picture.

The traditional arts and sciences are much larger parts of the community college world than is generally acknowledged.  Some of that has to do with the overlap between “general education” requirements and the liberal arts, of course.  But some of it has to do with preparation for transfer, for which the liberal arts major is specifically built.  The student who wants to go on for a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field is typically well-advised to take a liberal arts focus while at the community college.  Those courses transfer cleanly -- I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone shooting down Intro to Psych, for example -- and they’re much less expensive here.

For all of that, though, most of the political discussion around community colleges centers on workforce development, and most of the discussion around liberal arts ignores community colleges entirely.  

That’s a missed opportunity.  I’ve made the former point repeatedly, so here I’ll focus on the latter.  

If you take the original meaning of “liberal arts” as the “arts of liberty,” then community college students should be the first focus, rather than an afterthought.  In the aggregate, these are the students who have the most to gain from a serious education.  They’re the most trapped by economics, and frequently, the students with the least prior social capital.  If you believe, as I do, that the ability to think broadly about questions of ethics and economics and politics can come in handy from all different parts of society, then it would make sense to focus especially on teaching those intro courses well at the colleges that have the students who most need them.

So far, that mostly hasn’t happened.  Maybe it’s time to start.