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Community College Secrets Exposed

I read many college guides. I write about them too. I even wrote one myself. But I have never encountered a college guide like the one that arrived in the mail last week.
It had the usual colorful front cover with a gushy blurb above the title. The back cover had typical one-line previews of the hot new information inside. The difference was that this guide was written for the 11 million students ignored by all the other guides I have read, and the one I wrote. This book was about community colleges, and written for the nearly half of all American undergraduates who attend them.

“The Community College Guide: The Essential Reference From Application to Graduation” is a 279-page, sharply-written, detailed examination of everything, good and bad, that can happen to you in the 1,200 public two-year colleges in the United States. Authors Debra Gonsher and Joshua Halberstam are professors at Bronx Community College, but seem to know what is going on at similar institutions all over the country.
It has chapters on every imaginable topic, from what to call your college teacher to how to manage your time writing an essay question to how to make sure you have a cap and gown on graduation day. There is an appendix full of Web site addresses backing up the information in each chapter.

I skipped around, trying to see how the book handled the more ticklish community colleges issues. Here is how Gonsher and Halberstam handled these sore points that a student might raise:
How can I avoid those remedial courses that earn no college credit?
In my July 19 column, “The Community College Placement Mess,” I cited research on the California community colleges showing a bewildering variety of tests for deciding which first-year students must take remediation and which don’t. Gonsher and Halberstam don’t get into that, probably because it is a situation that, at the moment, neither they nor their students can do anything about. Instead, they advise students that flunk a community college placement exam to accept without resentment the bad news and start the remedial class as soon as possible.

“Too many students, inadvisably, postpone remedial classes when permitted to do so,” they say. “This is especially the case with remedial math, as students not majoring in math or science would rather focus on their reading and writing classes and delay dealing with their math requirement. Don’t fall into this trap! Putting off your remedial courses until the last semesters might hold back your graduation if you don’t pass the classes. Get your remedial classes out of the way in your first semesters so that you’ll have more choices later on and save time and money in the bargain.”

What if my professor is a disaster?

I consider it a good sign that two professors are willing to address this topic. They say: “Don’t be surprised if you run into a few clunkers. When you’re stuck with a poor teacher, your school life becomes more difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. This only means you have to step up a bit. If the instructor doesn’t explain the material well, you will have to ask more questions, study harder, and get help from classmates or a tutor. Usually, if you put in that extra effort, you’ll still get that A.”

If the problem is more serious than that, they say, take it up first with the teacher. I think this is a trifle naive. I would likely seek out a student advisor before I took that step, to make sure I had all the background I needed about this errant instructor. But they are right. You have to approach the person with whom you have the problem, and see it the issue might have been a misunderstanding. If that doesn’t work, the authors agree that you have to go the department head, and make sure you have documents or witnesses as back up.

How do I handle that first big paper?

This is a scary moment for both two- and four-year college freshmen. Most high schools fail to assign a long research paper, so that first college assignment can inspire panic. Gonsher and Halberstam, who teach communication arts and sciences, are very good on this issue. One of their best short segments is titled “Begin Writing Before You’re Ready to Write.” They say “Professional writers often say they don’t really know a subject until they write about it. Writing crystallizes our thoughts and gives them shape and direction. Don’t fall into the trap of spending the entire semester researching for your paper and then staying up the night before it’s due writing it. By beginning the writing process early, you’ll give your paper structure, and your reading and research will be more focused as a result.”

Will the four -year college I want block my transfer?

The authors are very upbeat on this. “Four-year colleges want you!” they say. “These institutions are eager to increase enrollment, and they are especially eager to attract good students.” In a column last year, “Community College Transfer Mess,” I noted that Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Nancy C. Rodriguez exposed some less welcoming policies in the community colleges she investigated. But the authors have the right attitude. You can get around such obstacles if you identify them early.

“Too many students wait until their third term or later before calculating how many transferable credits they have, only to find out they’ve taken nontransferable classes and need to make up those credits,” they say. They concede one of the points made in Rodriguez’s articles: “It’s an unfortunate fact that four-year schools and two-year schools do not work together nearly as well as they should for the benefit of students. Therefore, the sooner you know what is needed, the better you’ll be able to tailor your curriculum choices for the school you wish to attend.”

For anyone interested in getting the best out of our community colleges, thus both saving money and time, the sooner they get this book the better.

By Washington Post Editors  | August 14, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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This is informative and all, but in case you failed to notice, we have community colleges here in Maryland and Virginia that you could use as examples instead of always bringing up California. After all, this is the Washington Post, not the L.A. Times.

Posted by: DocL | August 14, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. Does the book talk at all about CC courses for high school students or is it focused on high school graduates/G.E.D. holders?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 14, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I am glad that they advised students to go ahead and take the remedial courses they need. One of the real strengths of community colleges is preparing students to do well after transferring to a university. The only way that is going to happen is to remediate them and get them on to their required courses.

The community colleges I am familiar with have transfer offices and students are wise to seek out their advice early on to learn how to transfer the maximum number of credits to their four-year school. Also, many four-year schools have admissions people who will work with community college students to facilitate transfers. As with many things, the help is there if students know where to look and they ask for it.

Posted by: margaret6 | August 14, 2009 8:06 PM | Report abuse

For DocL: excellent point. I plan to do some reporting on the placement tests in the local CCs, but I haven't done it yet, so couldn't say anything meaningful.
For CrimsonWife: the book is written for people who have completed high school or their GED and want to go to community college. I have yet to see a good book about dual enrollment community college courses for high schoolers. Or any book on that subject, for that matter. It would be nice if someone delved into that. I may have to myself if no one else does.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 17, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Every community college uses its own placement test, but they all do the same thing. They test kids' abilities in math and English, then place them in the appropriate math and English classes. Just like the placement tests that any four-year college uses. The reason that so many kids end up in remedial classes is also one of the main reasons kids choose community college: they didn't do well enough in their high school classes or on the SAT to get into a university.

Posted by: margaret6 | August 17, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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