Monday, June 14, 2004

On community colleges vs. posh colleges

For a fascinating and unpolemical comparison of America's community colleges and its posh private liberal arts schools, see this piece, by Susan Sharpe.

Sharpe is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), and her daughter has just graduated from Reed College, in beautiful Portland Oregon. Reed is a place to get a first-class education, where it's not unlikely to find students who simultaneously play the flute beautifully, major in biology, and also start free vaccine assistance programs for sub-saharan Africa... It's a wonderful place to go if you're adventurous and not too politically or socially conservative. After a few years of wandering, most graduates will become professionals of one sort or another, though more than a few will commit permanently to alternative lifestyles or activism.

Community college is quite another story. Many are, as Sharpe points out, not too bad to look at in terms of physical plant, especially if the campuses are new and located in affluents suburbs such as Northern Virginia or Montgomery County, Maryland. But funding is short in terms of other niceties. Students are all trying to become professionals, and they quite often succeed.

You go to community college because you are an ambitious kid whose parents don't have professional jobs. Because you are a girl in a family whose culture for thousands of years has valued education only for boys. Because you come from a family that never really thought about college for anyone, never saved for it or steered you toward it. You go to community college because you had a significant trauma during your adolescence: Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent, lost a sibling, lived in a household of chronic anger, suffered from depression or anorexia, did too many drugs. So you failed some of your high school courses, and the "good" colleges won't take you. You go to community college because you were born in another country and came to America too late to pick up English very easily. Because you landed a good job or gave birth to a beautiful baby right out of high school, and didn't look back for 10 or 15 years, when, suddenly, you thought about college. You go to community college because you have a learning disability, undiagnosed or untreated, that pushed you to the sidelines in school. Because you started at a four-year school and discovered that you weren't ready to leave home. And you go to community college because you believe that America is a society where intelligence is rewarded, and since you're such a fine, intelligent person, it's unnecessary for you to actually do any homework in high school, and suddenly you have a C average and your SATs are pretty good but, frankly, so are a lot of other people's, and the best offer you got from four-year colleges was their wait list.

For most of her article, Sharpe is unsentimental about the limitations of her students and of the environment she works in. But as paragraphs like the above show, she does become sentimental about what leads students to community college to begin with, as well as (elsewhere) what it means for the students who finally graduate.

Is that sentiment misplaced? I don't think so. Graduation from a posh college is a routine affair. Most students expect it, and are scarcely attentive during the ceremony. Graduation from community college, in contrast, reflects profound personal struggle against their environment and sometimes their own limitations (i.e., struggles with language, learning disabilities). The students aren't dry-eyed, so perhaps the professors who helped them through don't need to be either.