Why Community College is Still the Best Bet for Working Class Students

This originally appeared on the Working-Class perspectives blog at this link. Given the continuing stigma of community college education, it’s important we support community college students. You can read more about the community college/real college divide here.

Recently, a friend asked me whether I’d encourage my own children (if I had them) to attend a community college, the system where I teach sociology. I said “yes” immediately, but I know what thoughts lay behind her question. She was alluding to my grumbling about research that I’d been reading that suggests working-class institutions such as community colleges may not be the best place for working-class students. Though I initially said “yes” to my friend’s question, the more honest answer is “maybe.” I feel guilty saying this, but I feel ambivalent. I am a proud community college graduate, and teaching at a community college is wonderful, but the community college does have problems that make me wonder whether we are doing right by working-class students and upholding our mission to create pathways to success.

The research around student success suggests that community colleges do not challenge students and have low expectations. In the status hierarchy of higher ed, this means community college classes are perceived as “easier,” or less academically rigorous. Moreover, research shows that students who transfer from community colleges have frighteningly low graduation rates from four-year schools — an average of just 36% complete a four-year degree within 6 years. The analysis implies that the low graduation rate might be because community colleges do not foster cultures of achievement and that students do not feel motivated to succeed.

I cannot argue with the facts, much as they frustrate me, but there are other things going on. For example, many of these schools, like mine, have limited funds available to cover the costs of their expanding enrollments, even though, the California State University system has raised their fees and limited their enrollment for the next semester…again. That creates problems with class size, among other things. In my little notch of the world, increasing enrollment means that I will allow more students than I should to add my classes.

For about the past three years, community college faculty in California have received an email at the beginning of every semester about managing the increasing number of students in our classrooms. We’re encouraged to “hang in there” and understand that the system does not have additional funds to support these extra students. Lack of funding also means we are offering fewer sections of courses and less variety of courses, even as we enroll more students.

There will be heavy competition for seats the first week of school, which makes me worry that working-class students trying to add classes at the last minute but who can’t pay their tuition immediately might lose seats to someone who can pay that day. Whatever their reason for being there—to prepare to transfer to a four-year for a degree or for workforce development—the majority of students trying to get in need my class because their class schedules must be just so, to fit in between work and family responsibilities. Schedules that “fit” are important.

I worry about options for working-class students. I am concerned about low graduation rates, large class sizes, and rising fees, but I disagree with much of the research about the quality of community college education. First, it is a myth that classes at a community college are easier and that teachers have lower expectations then at a four-year university. I teach the same intro sociology course at the community college and the local four-year university, and students’ grades are similar in both groups.

Because community colleges serve a more diverse body of students, from those who want to transfer to a four-year school to students who want to learn to read better or gain job skills, people assume that we must have lower standards. We serve all levels of preparedness, but we are seen as less academic than our university neighbors are. The reality is that community colleges offer several levels of rigor, from honors courses to developmental reading and math. Students with lopsided skill sets–for example, proficient in math but not English–catch up in one area while taking more challenging courses in another.

Second, community college instructors focus on teaching instead of research, which is part of why we are not defined as “scholars” in the eyes of the system. For the academically vulnerable working-class student, however, this means more one-on-one time and an emphasis on the student-teacher relationship, which research suggests may have more of an effect on long-term student success than anything else we teachers do. Many students have written me after transferring to say how much they miss their relationships with their community college instructors not because four-year profs are “mean,” but because they have different responsibilities that leave less time for chatting about personal lives and asking about family.

Finally, the community college costs considerably less than a four-year school, which makes it easier for students to access education. Our slogan could be, “We’re ready when you are,” but that is not academic enough. Still, for working-class students, the community college is a valued cost saving option, students can graduate or transfer after two years with very little or no student loan debt. Yes, some students graduate/transfer from a two-year without debt, they piece together money from work, a grant or scholarship, and do a lot of financial juggling, but they do it and are proud to say so. When my colleagues from the four-year school wonder why their working-class students are “so stressed” all the time or miss school because they cannot miss work I think, “They don’t get it, but we do.”

In spite of my ambivalence, I say “yes,” I would encourage my hypothetical child to attend a community college and my main reason is simple: we get it. We teach students the same material but the education costs less and the teachers want to build relationships with our students. For the working class, community college is a first step, a pathway to improving one’s position; a practical choice in the midst of record high unemployment rates and ever-decreasing labor options for high school graduates. The success of working-class students is influenced by the academic culture and the kind of connections they make. Despite the community colleges’ institutional woes, those of us that teach there know that it is in the day-to-day interactions, calling students by name and lingering for after class conversations, that we create pathways to success.