College and Community

Of all the ways in which I've changed my mind since grade school, my opinion of community colleges is probably the most surprising.

When I was applying to schools, community college wasn't even on the radar. It seemed to me one step away from "taking a year off," which was itself one step away from not going to college at all. 

Then I married an adjunct faculty member at a community college, and within a year he had been offered a full-time position there. I listened as he told stories of second careers, rededicated focus and failures that actually taught more than they punished. He himself was a community college success story, having entered as an average student with very little direction and exited into a respected university and, later, graduate school.

Now, especially in this economic climate, I can't picture swallowing the tab for a four-year university, period -- but for a seventeen-year-old with little to no life experience? Unthinkable. She needs a place to experiment with learning, where she can try out classes and schedules and the Real World without the blinding fear on which so many university professors feed or the enormous debt that will almost certainly saddle her for a decade or more. Beyond that, if her parents have done their job, she still needs them as she navigates her first steps as an independent adult: the world of newly-unsupervised grown children is getting scarier with each passing year.

This lengthy piece about a new community college in New York (called, aptly, The New Community College) describes a sort of hybrid between a demanding prep school and the open-enrollment standard that has given community colleges their slacker reputation:

All students will take the same classes for the first year, though they will be separated into two levels of math. At other schools, students who need extra help can get it from skills labs, peer study groups, tutors or advisers. Here, none of those resources will be optional. “This is absolutely crucial because so many students appear at the door of community colleges completely clueless about what is required of them, or available to them,” said Ms. McClenney of the University of Texas. “They don’t know they need to do work outside of class. They don’t take advantage of tutoring and mentoring services. They don’t know about peer study groups or interacting with faculty.”

Students will be required to spend 90 minutes a week in “group work space,” working with classmates and building on what they learn in class, with help from peer mentors — more experienced students from other CUNY colleges. Much of that time will be devoted to writing and language skills, a particular weakness at this level. (When a professor in one information session asked for a definition of the word “urban,” she had to call on three applicants before getting a correct answer. One thought it meant “what’s going on now.”)

Students will also have mandatory weekly 90-minute group sessions with advisers, called “student success advocates,” addressing issues like study habits and stressful situations outside school.

“We’ve found that students usually try to confront problems alone, and they often make damaging long-term decisions, like dropping out, in response to temporary problems,” said Donna Linderman, director of a CUNY program that has tested some of the ideas behind the new college. “It makes an enormous difference to have them sit down regularly with an adviser who says, ‘O.K., how many hours are you working? How long is your commute? Let’s make this work and keep you in school.’ ”

I can't think of a better way to help introduce apprehensive and ambitious students to higher education, while simultaneously preparing them for the next rung on the academic ladder. (Well, maybe a privately-funded institution with the same goals. One thing time has not changed is my opinion about the perils of government bureaucracy and the ensuing mismanagement of funds.)

Interestingly, the college where Rob teaches has launched a very similar initiative, which the Wall Street Journal profiled earlier this spring (in fact, fast forward to 3:30 to see a glimpse of his department!) 

The difficult part about being enlightened later in life? Seeing students come through my classroom, and knowing they are just as I was -- totally unaware of what they really need, and totally unwilling to listen to someone who does.