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Community college: Not 'failing diploma mills,' but pathways to success

While there's an active community of commenters here on the Get Schooled blog, a wider audience often sees the essays on the blog via social media. University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky, a frequent contributor to this blog, shared some of that wider response to a recent piece he wrote on community colleges and President Obama’s proposal to make community college more accessible to students by eliminating tuition.

Many Get Schooled commenters attended four-year universities and sent  their own children to Georgia State, Tech or UGA. But thousands of Georgia students begin at community colleges. With more than 25,000 students, Georgia Perimeter College is the third-largest institution in the University System of Georgia.

By Peter Smagorinsky

A professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Morici asserts we should close the “failing diploma mills” of two-year colleges because, he claims, people who attend them are dysfunctional and, as defective human beings, do not merit our support. His evidence for this wholesale condemnation is that many community college students do not complete their two-year associate’s degree within three years.

Community college students, he states confidently, have “deficient high school records and preparation, intractable personal problems, and poor study habits and executive skills.” Typically, he asserts, the community college student is a “19-year old mother — who receives no child support — [who] reads at the sixth grade level, can’t do algebra and has significant emotional and self-esteem issues.”

Since writing my rebuttal, I have heard from a number of people who are dumbfounded at Dr. Morici’s hostility toward a whole social class with whom he appears to have had little actual contact. One reader, for instance, sent me Tom Hank's essay on community colleges , from which he is such a proud graduate that he still tells his children, “That place made me what I am today.” In commenting on President Obama’s initiative to make community college education affordable, Hanks says:

“I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.”

That sentiment has recurred in the notes I’ve received. People go to two-year colleges for all manner of reasons, mostly grounded in economics. Single parents who put themselves through school cannot simply coast through obstacles, as can those whose parents who can afford the price tag of a four-year university.

Rather, people funding their own education typically do so while holding down jobs and meeting life’s myriad obligations. If they are single parents and their children become sick, they miss time because they can’t afford childcare or, often enough, the care of doctors. Rather than being dysfunctional for taking more than three years to graduate, they are often making great sacrifices to advance their life’s prospects through education. Community colleges are also often the starting place for military veterans.

As one person wrote, “The reasons [for taking longer than typical to graduate] are endless, and ALL [who persist] are admirable, anyone who perseveres. That is also what they will draw on forever, the perseverance.”

Another wrote, “I worked during college. Yes, it took me longer. Not everyone has the same opportunity or level of family support necessary to meet these arbitrary timelines.”

One person wrote suggesting I look at the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, whose mission is dedicated to helping mature, low-income women 35 and older succeed through education, often beginning with an associate’s degree.

I should note that my father, who grew up in a poor immigrant community, had little sympathy for street beggars as an adult, even as he generally embraced Rooseveltian principles of providing public assistance to institutions designed to allow opportunities for those willing to work within their provisions. He escaped his Manhattan ghetto through a combination of family support and unusual talent.

Not everyone has such generous endowments of either. The community college system is, however, where they might parlay determination and opportunity into a successful life trajectory. Such “grit” is often celebrated as an independent variable through which people may advance up the economic ladder.

Yet grit alone does not enable a person born into social disadvantage to navigate complex, new social systems autonomously. Individuals’ grit benefits from institutional pathways such as affordable education through which they may make the most of their prospects in life.

If society has any compassion toward those who get a late or disadvantaged start in life and may potentially change both their own arcs and the lives of those around them, then the community college system is surely worth public support.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.