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Community colleges cont'd

A reader writes in:

My daughter has been enrolled in a local Community College for two years and plans on continuing to earn her degree by transferring.

When she was in about 9th grade, we would talk colleges and where she might go; UW-Madison (my alma), UM-Twin Cities (husband's alma), Northwestern (her grandfather's, etc). By her senior year in high school a program was put in place at her public school called, "Power of You." This program was created for those high school students who graduated from ANY Minneapolis Public School and in return for attending this Community College (in her case, Metropolitan Community and Technical College), they would receive free tuition. Most credits transfer to other colleges/universities. At first I was a little snobbish about this, but my daughter was the one who was the most pragmatic about the whole thing. She knew she would not get into Northwestern, but even if she could, my husband and I couldn't afford it.

Needless to say, this program has been a great start for her continuing education. After this semester, she will transfer, not to the UM Twin Cities, but to Metro State next door to her current school. And....and....she will continue to receive free tuition at that school as well. In two years, she will have a BA in Early Education. The total cost? Zero.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 14, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
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I went to a large public university (on a free ride because of my good high school grades) for one semester, did poorly, and decided to go snowboarding. After a few years, I went back to a community college for fall semesters (and still snowboarded afer school got out in December). After getting my Geology A.S., I went back to a university for my Bachelor's in Geology. I wouldn't change a thing about doing this. The general education classes (e.g. English, U.S. History) I took at the community college were more personal and on sum, taught better, than what you get at a university.

Posted by: flounder2 | September 14, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm not unsympathetic to this point of view, but let's not be naive about the value of a free education. College is a lot more about the people you meet and a lot less about what you studied. And, like it or not, when people make hiring decisions, they're swayed more by where you went to school and less by what you know.

Posted by: mdg1111 | September 14, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

mdg, here here!

I am sure the submitter's daughter is very bright and would make a fine teacher, but riding off of the NY Mag piece you posted yesterday in Wonkbook, do we really want our children to be learning from less than top rate teachers with less than top rate educations?

Posted by: will12 | September 14, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I'll second what mdg and will12 said. I think community colleges and more general universities are great, but expansions of these types of programs don't negate the need to make more prestigious educational paths more accessible. To turn this back to another subject Ezra has written about in the past few days, as more and more students rely on community colleges and lower-tier regional public universities, we are reinforcing the same trend in inequality that Ezra bemoans.

What's happening is that a wealthy elite and a handful of extremely bright less wealthy students have access to top schools. And even first-tier public universities are getting harder and harder for middle-class families to attend. Those who get degrees from less-prestigious institutions may well be ensured a middle-class lifestyle, but only those at the most selective will have access to the highest paying jobs. And with those jobs paying far more than what others can get, we're still seeing a big bifurcation.

Posted by: Isa8686 | September 14, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Not really sure what the point of this story is. That community colleges and our land-grant local public universities are educating the next generation of local professionals at a low price? That's been true for forever. Or maybe it's to show that "middle class people go to community college, too!" which is something very valuable from a political perspective: if CCs are seen as "the last resort of the poor," then they will be the first thing to be cut by politicians.

Another good function of community colleges is basically to provide steady employment for smart people. I had a great scientific mathematics teacher for a continuing-education night class I was taking at a local university. The instructor was a full-time professor at a community college but teaching this night class at that university to make extra money. Without being anchored to the local community college, the university I was studying at would have had to depend on more expensive professors or non-teaching professionals with other jobs to teach the class.

What I actually think is going to happen here is not more bifurcation but rather an increase in the prestige of local colleges. The 1970s through the 1990s was effectively a "bubble period" for national private universities. That bubble is bursting and the "new norm" will be for most students outside of the top-tier to attend less expensive local colleges.

Posted by: constans | September 14, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The idea of making prestigious institutions more accessible is a contradiction. They are prestigious because they are exclusive and hard to get into, despite the breaks they give to legacies, favored (not all!) minorities and children of celebrities. Obviously, very able people come from much more modest schools, and the advantage conferred by prestigious schools lessens as time passes. Not going to such a school is not one of life's great misfortunes.

Posted by: truck1 | September 14, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

@truck1: I'm not sure the advantage conferred by prestigious schools is lessening. If anything, it seems to be growing more, with those from top schools going into finance or consulting out of undergrad, then getting easy access to the best graduate or professional programs. And with areas like the legal market now saturated, those with the highest educational pedigrees seem to have a lock on all the top jobs.

It's possible this is all sort of a bubble, and that over the next few decades, we'll see a readjustment, but the trend for now is real.

I get what you're saying about prestige depending on accessility, but what's important is HOW they define accessibility. Right now, it's heavily determined by parental income - wealthy kids wind up filling the overwhelming majority of slots at prestigious schools, something that's becoming increasingly true even at first-tier public schools. Obviously, there can only be a small number of students going to elite institutions, but if we want a more egalitarian society, then more students need to drawn from less privileged backgrounds (correspondingly, fewer slots should go to legacies or wealthy kids with the right connections).

Beyond this, of course, reducing disparities would also require improving income growth among middle-income earners, and reducing the explosive growth in executive and high-end pay. And of course facilitating more equitable admissions in selective institutions also requires vast improvements in primary education, so that the achievement gap between wealthy and less-wealthy kids isn't so gaping.

Posted by: Isa8686 | September 14, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Respectfully, a number of the comments posted here have it backwards. Institutions such as UW-Madison (mentioned in the article) have a very different purpose than community colleges (such as Madison's Madison Area Technical College), or smaller two-year state schools.

Large research universities such as UW-Madison are designed to, and work very effectively at, doing...research. They are not organized around the principles of exemplary pedagogy. Community colleges and state schools, however, generally are.

If a student is interested in an academic career, one that requires research as an entree to the field, then that student should -by all means- head to the prestigious research university. If, however, the student is interested in a specific career that can be effectively taught in a sequenced program, then she should seek out a program that caters to that need. Large research universities cater to one thing: doing research, and faculty there "tolerate" teaching at the expense of their own research needs for professional edification and advancement.

It is no surprise that students, in increasing numbers, are attending community colleges and tech schools after receiving a four-year degree at the big university.

Our society would do well to work against the stigma that pervades our understanding of the role of community colleges as one of the multiple educational formats available today.

Finally, I would submit that not only are community colleges poised by design to best serve students for many kinds of career paths, but they can also boast much better teaching. The faculty rolls of community colleges are typically dominated by individuals with Master's degrees or Doctorates in their fields, but who make their living teaching (not researching). Community college faculty are also generally required to pursue professional development and pedagogical training...good luck finding professors at a large research university who have done so.

Posted by: fakedude2 | September 14, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Community college are a great resource for many, many people. Tuition is only part of the story. Many students from less affluent families can live at home and attend community college.

For a highly motivated 18 year old, who knows what career path they want to take, and require a prestigious undergrad program to get there, it makes sense to go to the very best, even if doing so requires significant debt.

But how many 18 year olds are like that? Not only do most of them not know what they want to do, many of those who do know are interested in pursuing careers, like teaching, that does not require attendance at a prestigious university.

My state has a common course numbering system for all public institutions of higher learning....flagship universities and community colleges. This common course numbering system guarantees the free transferability of credits between all public institutions, which greatly facilitates the ability of students who do well in a community college to move on to a 4 year degree.

And don't kid yourself about the quality of teaching in freshman lit classes at major universities. More likely than not, the student is sitting in an auditorium listening to a TA lecture.

And whatever you do, don't be the parent of the NYU student who took on close to a quarter million dollars in student loan debt to get a degree in Women's Studies and can now barely pay the rent, much less repay the debt taken on for a degree of dubious merit.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 14, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I like the end: "In two years, she will have a BA in Early Education. The total cost? Zero."

Um, I'm pretty sure it cost somebody something. Just because it didn't cost you anything doesn't mean that there are no costs involved at all. :)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | September 14, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Kevin, when you rail against the evils of "free" street parking, we might be able to take you seriously.

Posted by: constans | September 14, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Correction. That NYU student accumulated $100,000 in debt to obtain a degree in Women's Studies from NYU. Prestigious school? Yes. But prestigious is as prestigious does. And she apparently didn't even catch herself a rich partner or scale the social ladder despite the prestigious environment. Not such a good idea. Student loans are not forgiven in bankruptcy.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 14, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Washington State has had a version of this for years called Running Start except you take the community college classes during your junior and senior year of high schools for college and HS credit. The community college tuition is paid by the money that would normally go to the school district.

Thus, it's possible to get a HS degree and an AA degree at the same time. At that point, you simply apply to the prestigious 4 year university of your choice with the knowledge this sort of thing looks good on a college application and that you won't have to pay $50,000 a year to take low level classes.

Posted by: lol-lol | September 14, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Many years ago one of my professional journals had a great article highlighting undergraduate chemistry training at JC's. The article included interviews with several famous scientists who had gotten their academic start at a JC. I can't remember them all, but two names did stick in my head: Craig Venter and Bruce Merrifield (famous for developing genome and protein sequencing methods, respectively).

For the hard sciences, where one goes to undergrad school isn't nearly as important as grad school. The JC's are a great bargain, and the teaching is actually done by PhD's in a small class setting (as opposed to the graduate student TA's found in most larger universities). In California, most of the JC's have formal connections with one or more of the UC's, so that transfer to a UC is a sure thing if one takes (and passes) the appropriate classes at JC.

The downside is that the faculty at JC's are often "freeway flyers". That is, they don't have long term positions, and have to drive from campus to campus to teach and earn enough to survive. It's a tough way to earn a living for many of the faculty.

Posted by: Beagle1 | September 14, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

"The total cost? Zero."

I am sure the total cost isn't "zero". People are so selfish. Free for me, tragedy of the commons, here we come.

Posted by: staticvars | September 14, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

Get information on how to reduce your debt by filing for bankruptcy

Posted by: albertjayson | September 15, 2010 6:31 AM | Report abuse

I meant that over the course of a person's lifetime, the extra value of a degree from a prestigious place diminishes. In your twenties, it is helpful, but less so in your forties, fifties, etc.

Posted by: truck1 | September 15, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

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