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Don't Forget the Community Colleges

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When I graduated from high school in the mid 70s, a year early, I had the bare minimum of credits and a GPA just over 3. I went to work in the foundry industry and attended Laney College in Oakland off and on over the next seven years, before being admitted to UC Berkeley in 1982. I wasn’t ready for a UC education at age 17, but I graduated with honors in 1986.


This experience is part of the reason I have questioned the wisdom of gearing our high schools to focus on preparing all graduates for admission to top-level four year universities. This was in response to current proposals and policies that would mandate Algebra for all 8th grade students in California (now on hold due to an injunction) and require high school graduates to meet the University of California’s “A to G requirements.”

In my post a few weeks back, I raised the concern that if we make a high school diploma an all-or-nothing deal, with admission to a four-year university the only acceptable outcome, we risk increasing the number of students who will drop out, and ignore the many students who may find other pathways to success in their adult lives.

There is no doubt that in our future economy, some form of post-secondary education will be of increasing value. Community colleges helped me along my path, providing me with inexpensive, flexible and accessible classes that allowed me to transfer to a four-year institution. It turns out community colleges are a hugely overlooked resource, which provide a vital avenue to success for many people.

A draft white paper by PolicyLink on Federal Infrastructure Workforce Strategy recently reported that:

Seventy five percent of all African-American, Latino, and Native Americans that pursue a higher education degree start their journey in a community college. Offering more 175 degree and certificates in hundreds of vocation fields, in California, for example, the 109 colleges that make up the CCC are the largest provider of work training. Meanwhile, students who earn a degree or certificate from a California community college increase their earnings by 63%. Meanwhile, in state of Washington, which is realigning the state's basic skills education to integrate it with workforce training, found that students who complete at least one year of community college (that leads to a credential) can significantly improve their earning power. Conducted for the Ford Foundation by David Prince, The Tipping Point Study (2005), which tracked 35, 000 working age adult students who came to community college with high school education or less, or non-English-speaking, found that attainment of a one-year credential resulted in an "earnings bump" of: $7,000 more per year for ESL students, $8,500 more per year for an adult basic education student, and $2,700 and $1,700 more per year (respectively) for workforce students entering with a GED or high school diploma only.
Clearly it is to an individual students’ advantage to leave high school fully prepared to directly enter a four-year university, and we should remove any and all barriers to such an outcome. However not all our students are on that trajectory, and I do not believe we do them any favors by withholding their diplomas if they follow a different path.

I was permitted to graduate from high school even though I was not ready for a four-year university. Community colleges allowed me the freedom to learn as I was ready, grow up a bit, and when I eventually arrived at UC Berkeley, I was a hungry student ready to succeed. Let’s work to keep as many avenues open to our students as possible.

Was a community college part of your pathway? What role do community colleges play in your region? How do you think our high schools should best prepare students for their futures?


Wonderful post, Anthony--made more persuasive and meaningful by including your own story. The four-year, in-residence bachelor's degree as the primary model for a useful education does not seem to align with 21st century workplace needs. A person who graduated in 1994--15 short years ago--with a bachelor's degree in a technology field would have outgrown nearly everything learned, from skills to communication theories. People will need to continuously re-educate themselves in all fields--so why are we so bent on getting them into four-year programs, right out of high school?

It's as much a matter of maturity and focus as educational readiness. And--how many young people do graduate in four or five years with a degree that doesn't lead them to anything except the possibility of hiding out in graduate school?

I'd also like to see more young people encouraged to take a "gap" year or two, working and sorting out what it means to be independent. After time away from daily schooling, many young people might have an increased sense of appreciation for learning and more clearly defined goals.

I agree. The mental attitude I had at age 24, when I started at Berkeley, was so different from where I was at 17 years old. I still remember how excited I was to go to lectures by brilliant scholars like Alan Dundes. I was far more prepared by my years as a foundry grinder than I was by my high school!

Yeah, Anthony! When family issues required me to change my work schedule, I was blessed to be able to move from high school to full-time position at a community college. For a teacher, it's the best of worlds. Freed from many of the non-teaching burdens of secondary, but focused on teaching rather than the publish-or-perish tenure treadmill of the universities.

Certainly, many of the students who come to community college are "ready" for four-year, academically, but may not be ready financially. Thank you for reminding us that not every child who graduates high school does so in the top ten percent of the class. Where do those average students go? Most of the fastest growing technical career fields require two years or less of training.

There are many problems at the community college as well, though. If you haven't seen it, check out the John Merrow piece, "Discounted Dreams" on struggles of community college students.

You remind me of some of the fantastic professors I had at Laney College. I had an English teacher who had our class engage in vigorous debate about the relevance of Hamlet, a history professor who was an expert in the neighborhoods of Oakland, and an African American history professor who helped me see our nation in a different light. John Merrow has indeed shone light on the situation in our community colleges. His documentary can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/merrow/tv/discounteddreams/index.html

Kudos, Anthony. Thanks for sharing your personal story. It adds relevance to your point about keeping schooling options open.

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