Community College vs. four-year

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Aug 30, 2004
A Matter of Degrees By Susan Sharpe Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page W32 My daughter's graduation from Reed College took place on the spacious lawn in front of the campus's Gothic dormitories. It rained a little, but the conservatively dressed, affluent, well-spoken parents looked cheerful as they gathered under a large tent at the small, elite college in Portland, Ore. We compared notes about where we were from, the schools our other children were attending, the plans of the graduates (which all seemed to have a luminous vagueness that drew us together in sympathetic anxiety), and whether it would rain more. At last, to the tunes of a small chorus, the procession began, and the excited faces that we had watched grow from brainy adolescence to this moment of success passed by us. The speeches began. The president of the college told the graduates that they would never again be part of such a community of like-minded souls, that they would never again share such a happy conjunction of intellectual and social life. Now it was time to devote themselves to grand works of peace and equality. Equality. Well, I sat up. I teach English at Northern Virginia Community College, the second-largest community college in the nation and one of the most ethnically diverse. NOVA's graduations are held in the Patriot Center at George Mason University, but apart from the setting, the ceremony is much the same as the one at my daughter's expensive liberal arts college. There is a song by the chorus -- only NOVA's chorus is better. There's a parade of the faculty in academic regalia, looking a little sheepish but wonderfully medieval, and then a parade of graduates -- only NOVA's graduate parade is much longer. After some nice speeches that everyone hopes won't be too long, the names of the graduates are read out, and the president shakes every hand -- only at NOVA, this takes an hour and a half, and includes much mispronunciation. There's a cheer for each student -- only in NOVA's case, the cheers are much louder. Sometimes the NOVA graduate is the first family member to attend college, or the first to achieve higher education in the United States, and the graduate's relatives, dressed to the teeth, gripping the thin edge of success with hopeful hearts, let out a whoop to set your ears ringing. Sometimes the graduates cry. Sometimes I cry. What does it mean to go to college? Are the diplomas NOVA hands out comparable to the ones that were handed out at my daughter's college? Do they represent, in any sense, the same educational experience or the same academic credentials? What did we buy, when we paid $30,000 a year, when our daughter could have attended community college for a year and gotten the same 30 credits for $2,000? Our child's college education was sterling. Her papers were read by perceptive and responsive readers. Her classes were small, her teachers were articulate, her classmates were smart and sophisticated; she was surrounded by creativity of all sorts. She got to leave home, to develop passionate friendships, to engage in argument with marvelously thoughtful and well informed people. If she was not quite sure what to do with her degree in English literature, that was only because her education was in no way "vocational." What she got was a world of luxurious thinking that had nothing to do with job training -- and was therefore training for the very best jobs. In due time, she and many of her classmates will go to graduate school, art school, law school or medical school, and they will be, mostly, healthy, wealthy and wise. How different is the community college experience? The disparities are vast. For starters, our operating budget at NOVA is much, much lower. We have computers and a pretty campus, but our classrooms are drab. Clocks fall off our walls; heating and cooling systems fail; the staff is overworked. We're fine teachers, but we teach many more students. A typical English teacher at NOVA has 125 to 135 students a semester, which is almost triple the number per teacher at Reed. For better and worse, we're not intellectuals actively engaged in scholarly pursuits. Our students don't get to leave home and are not isolated from the cares of the world -- they have jobs, children, parents, car trouble; they have to make their meals and pay their bills and haul out their trash. They have almost no time or opportunity for community with one another. They differ in nationality, age, educational goals. We teach only two years of college. If you were to take one of our sophomores and look at his or her academic work, and look at the sophomore work of my daughter's classmates, the differences would be huge. The Reed students read 10 times as much, and they read original texts by thinkers and scholars, ancient and modern. Community college students usually read magazine articles and textbooks, summaries of the works by the thinkers and scholars. The Reed students write better; not that their writing doesn't have sins, but the sins are different. They can be verbose, stuffy, sometimes disorganized. But their expression is richly textured, subtle, even occasionally original. Almost all community college students, on the other hand, have at least a few problems with grammar, which get in the way. They tend to write simple sentences in order to avoid mistakes, and thus do not express their most subtle thoughts. Their vocabularies are more limited, and their thinking strives for the dogmatically conventional. Their most earnest question about an assignment is usually, "I don't understand exactly what you want." These aren't necessarily differences in intelligence. They are the differences in the students' experiences and how they have been taught. Some community college students, of course, are the equals of students anywhere, and many will continue on to four-year schools. Our transfers thrive. Students from NOVA go all over the state and even the country, especially those from our honors program. Our current president is a community college product, and our alumni increasingly show up in all walks of life. NOVA and other community colleges are one of the great bargains in American education. From time to time, we're visited by recruiting teams looking for transfers. There's a group from Smith, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley that regularly comes looking for our best "returning women," to whom they sometimes offer full scholarships. One year I had my heart set on getting one of those scholarships for a smart, engaged, hardworking grandmother. She'd been driving a big truck with her boyfriend, but now she wanted certification as a teacher. She was shy, at bottom, and I had to push her to go to the recruiting session. The recruiters warned that, even with scholarships, the students might have to do some work to make ends meet. "How much?" she asked. "Well, five or six hours a week is common." I watched her face. Only five or six hours? In Virginia, she took care of grandchildren and a household, went to school full time, worked 30 hours as a teacher's aide. She looked at me and started to cry, and then she was embarrassed and beat her fist on the table and said: "I never in my life expected to be offered an opportunity like this one! If America isn't the greatest country in the world, I want to hear someone say it. Just come over here and try saying that to me!" At Smith, as at most elite colleges, most of the students are young and single. They often believe that they are at these places because they deserve to be, because they "got in." And to an extent, of course, that's true, and some have overcome significant hardships to get there. Certainly, by no means are all of them from wealthy families; there are scholarships and loans and student work programs, and some families sacrifice greatly. Nevertheless, if you were to put it the opposite way and ask me why one goes to community college, the answer might be educational for many of my daughter's classmates. You go to community college because you are an ambitious kid whose parents don't have professional jobs. Because you are a girl in a family whose culture for thousands of years has valued education only for boys. Because you come from a family that never really thought about college for anyone, never saved for it or steered you toward it. You go to community college because you had a significant trauma during your adolescence: Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent, lost a sibling, lived in a household of chronic anger, suffered from depression or anorexia, did too many drugs. So you failed some of your high school courses, and the "good" colleges won't take you. You go to community college because you were born in another country and came to America too late to pick up English very easily. Because you landed a good job or gave birth to a beautiful baby right out of high school, and didn't look back for 10 or 15 years, when, suddenly, you thought about college. You go to community college because you have a learning disability, undiagnosed or untreated, that pushed you to the sidelines in school. Because you started at a four-year school and discovered that you weren't ready to leave home. And you go to community college because you believe that America is a society where intelligence is rewarded, and since you're such a fine, intelligent person, it's unnecessary for you to actually do any homework in high school, and suddenly you have a C average and your SATs are pretty good but, frankly, so are a lot of other people's, and the best offer you got from four-year colleges was their wait list. These are my students, and I try to give them an education, as I understand education. Like a lot of community college teachers, I had the elite version, and I carry certain academic ideas into my English classroom. You need to write well because you need to think well. You should create a picture of the past and the present, through disciplines like literature and history, sociology and biology, and you should come to an understanding that these are pictures, not truths, and learn to be flexible and yet to respect evidence. The student who begins the year saying, "Oh no, community college," has frequently been caught saying, at the end of it, "Thank you, that was great." "See," I muse to myself at the end of my daughter's graduation, "you can get an excellent education at a community college. In fact, maybe we didn't need to spend so . . ." "Yes, you did," says another voice in my head. "The differences are vast, and the world isn't fair, and when you had a chance to buy this experience for your daughter, you didn't even hesitate." Yes, it's a great country, as one of my Chinese students kept reminding me last spring. She was in a remedial class, struggling with English verbs and idiom, not to mention the strange customs of American essay writing. But she worked valiantly, and on the last day she came to thank me. "You very smart, Dr. Sharpe, you have PhD. You work hard." "Yes, well, I had a lot of advantages to start with," I murmured. A shadow crossed her face. "No, you work very hard. That's why you have PhD." I suppose I did. And my daughter worked hard, and all the kids at her elite, expensive college worked hard. They worked hard in high school to get in, and they worked even harder to pass their rigorous courses. They, too, struggled with life's difficulties, with divorced parents and depression -- even, a few, with being far from home and in another country. They deserved our celebration of their success. But as I wandered among the radiant Reed grads sipping champagne and nibbling strawberries, I reminded myself that there are others who also work hard, and get less reward. Community colleges have done more to provide opportunity and second chances to immigrants and underachievers and working-class families than any other institutions I know of. I just wish it were an equal education. Susan Sharpe has taught at Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years. She lives in Arlington.
From: Thoughts?
Critic, post an abridged version, and a question that you want an opinion on, and I'll do my best. Couple of examples. I worked my freckle off at school and university, and now have a pretty well paying job as an engineer. My brother quit highschool, and worked his freckle off at his trade (electrician). He's now GM of a company the employs over 100 people, that investment banks are knocking at the door all the time. Horse for courses.
Cliffs notes: Some empty-headed woman who teaches at a community college wrote a "me too" article about her daughter's graduation from a decent four-year university.
Cliffs notes: She could have said that in a single paragraph - maybe two. Each with 5 or 6 sentences of moderate length - and that being too wordy. Sheesh. People use different pathways for life. Get over it. I know, I know...I didn't feel it.....
Wow! I thought that was very powerful writing with feeling. A little verbose maybe, but she IS an English Teacher. I've lived a piece of that. 1 1/2 years at local J/C, buildings were donated army barracks, teachers were an odd bunch of rejects and near-do-wells. Unable to finish do to lack of money. (I was the first to get past the 8th. grade in my family, and the only one to attend collage.) Fast forward 50 years, put 3 sons through College, 2 at UNC Charlotte, 1 at NC State U in Raleigh. I do believe I understand her feelings. Thanks Critic. BTW: Are you looking for advice on your future education path? Or just curious about what people think?
Well, I will relay my experiences; I will not say this is true in all circumstances; this is MY experience. I attended both the Univerisity of Rochester (private $$$ school) and a branch of the University of Connecticut in Hartford, a public commuter school for students prior to going to Storrs (main branch) UConn/Hartford isn't technically a "community college" but it in effect operates as one. Rochester attracts the best students and at least in the technical and scientific areas, is primarily a research institution; undergraduates are a necessary annonyance. Top professors bring in grant money, publish papers, are leaders in their fields. If not, they are denied tenure. The professor who was three times voted "best" by the student body was denied tenure, quit and picked up a lucrative job at Kodak research. So much for education. I was fortunate enough to "jump on the grant bandwagon" and picked up a job ( as a student ) maintaining a VAX computer used on a DOE High Energy Physics grant. Not too many undergrads got to bicycle through a particle accellerator. The Phds and graduate students I worked with didn't teach classes; in fact the computer I maintained was not even accessible to students. Opportunity was great at Rochester, education was poor. In effect one has to whole heartily take complete responsibility for his own education, seek it out, go for it like never before; else become disillusioned. It is clear by your comments here over the years that you are a self-motivated learner. I believe this is the most important trait needed to succeed and what appears to be lacking in many young people. You probably would do very well at a place like Rochester. UConn/Hartford OTOH, the educators are there for one purpose, educate students. I would say the finest "teaching professors" I have ever met taught there. They are completely accessible, responsive to different peoples life situations, unlike at Rochester. Best value for the dollar IMHO. A friend of mine teaches Chemistry at a community college in New York State. He got his PhD from Wisconsin; he is primarily interested in teaching also (His PhD is in Chemistry EDUCATION) He enjoys this job since, being a communitry college, he gets a variety of students, including single mothers, older people returning to the job market etc; the classes are not filled up with a bunch of 18 years old who have, for once, just gotten their freedom; it creates a different education environment to say the least. It wouldn't be a bad thing for young people to be in classes with older people with some "real life experience" Just my $.02 -Thomas
Opinion: Michael is weighing the prestige of a private college ..with the tuition way out of whack with what the degree brings in the market place ..vs. the sensible frugal pathway of doing most of work on the cheap and then going the state route for the sheep skin. You'll note in the article it was a female writing about her daughter's graduation. It wasn't an Ivy league lawyer, retired from his practice to teaching, talking about his son. Although not the intended message was rather clear. Grooming with a purpose. Socialization for the finer things in life. Her daughter's degree has a silent "MRS" in front of it. If she ends up slumming it ..she may end up like mom .. Sorry ..just the flip side of the coin.
Couple of things to consider.... If it's in the context of sending your kid off to school, will sending them to a $30k a year school be an experiment to see how well they do in school, or do they have the skills to suceed wherever you send them ? If it's an experiment consider a community college as you don't want to blow scholorships and such, much less lots of money. If the kids know they want to go into look at the typical educational path. Good is good regardless of what school you attend, but a 4 yr degree from a fancy school gets points to get you in the door in some cases, and will just plain be required in others. Is a 3.8 from a community college and 2 yrs of a university as good as a 2.5 from a university ? I'd say yes, provided your kids actually learned something, but it varies depending upon who's hiring. Some careers pretty much demand a graduate degree, others a post doc, where your 4 yr degree doesn't really matter as much as long as you do well in graduate school. If we're takling about a kid wanting to attend a $30k a year school and they don't know what they want to do maybe you need to ponder the value of a liberal arts education, as I'll guess that's what most in that category will end up in.
As a recent university graduate, I feel like I might have some worthwhile advice. Your going to hear a lot of noise about community colleges vrs universities and saving money. Many of the people I know who went to community college to save money never got their degree and in effect wasted money. Don't buy the "credits will transfer over just fine" line. All the people I knew who did that, ended up having to retake serveral classes they did at the CC, becuase the university said "Well that class isn't as tough as ours, we'll only take it at three credits, you'll have to pay to take our four credit class." Or some other similiar line. I went to a city university, worked part-time during school and full in the summer. I knew if I went to my local CC that was right next to my high school, I would just be messing around with old friends and wasting time and money. I had the money, so I went to a unversity, got a different experiance, and learned alot abut the world and expanded my perspectives. That wouldn't have happened at the CC. Also be wary of the "college experiance". To me this means learning new things, spending time balancing school and work, losing sleep. If it means party all time, cram the nigh before, trouble is around the bend. If money is tight, by all means do the CC and then four year route. <b>If your serious about school and get an education that you can do something with; your ahead. It doesn't get you out of hard work. </b>
One facet we must remember is the "Good OL Boy network" Here in Texas it pays to be an Aggie, MBA's have a pecking order determined by what school of business attended. Any higher education will pay off, some will payoff better.
Before I begin, understand that I am NOT against having a higher education. Colleges that are typically labeled as "community" get a bad reputation from non-students. I go to Clayton State University (recently changed from Clayton College & State University) and a lot of high school teachers believe that it was a school for lazy people, dumba**es, and people who "aren't serious" about their education, only because it was labeled as a "community" college. I can assure you, those kinds of students are out of that college within a year, as they've lost the HOPE scholarship (the only thing keeping a lot of people in school) because they failed a majority of the work, don't study, and don't pay attention. My cousin told me how some of his co-workers went to Clayton State and then transferred to Georgia Tech. His co-workers told him that they thought Georgia Tech was easy compared to Clayton. Clayton actually has a reputation for being a rather hard school, one of the hardest in Georgia. Bottom line, a degree is a degree, a piece of paper is a piece of paper, an education is what you make of it. Do what you enjoy and you will succeed, no matter what others say. I firmly believe in having an education, but I find the emphasis on it to be a little corrupt. The corporate job market typically doesn't care (there are plenty of exceptions, but not for the majority) what you can or cannot do, they only care about that expensive piece of paper. Hard working people, who know what the h*** they're doing, are not acknowledged in the hiring process because they don't have that piece of paper which means you passed some bulls*** tests. So instead, they pull some idiot who can't comprehend 4+3, and put them above others who have served the company for years...all because of that piece of paper.
You can build bridges all of you life and not be an engineer, but if you choke down enough classes and get one degree you're educated forever.
There surely is a "club" mentality in corporate hiring. Richer people tend to go to more expensive schools. Sure, if you're accepted ..any school is going to come up with a financial aid package that you can afford (conditions and restrictions apply in the interpretation of "affordable")'s the same with William & Mary or Smith ..or whomever. You don't get an invite if they don't want you there. My older daughter, after her appearance at the USL tournament, got TONS of invitations from lacrosse coaches at some very expensive and exclusive schools. After I realized that there were no athletic scholarships below Div II, I simply replied that she wasn't academically gifted and that lacrosse was the only thing that actually compelled her to go to college. I stated that we weren't looking for some "grooming" of our daughter for some lofty station and were going to be running toward the most financial relief that was available since we were not a "substantial household" in their interpretation of the term. Most thanked me for my honesty and candor. Now my younger daughter, OTOH, national honor society, accepted at Penn State Main campus (but chose Millersville St for other reasons) got "bugged" by all kinds of upper crust small schools ...relentlessly. It's obvious to me that the squids are running out of ink for the elite schools and they are willing to discount heavily to those who will maintain their image of being "top tier". "Yes, we do allow slimes ..if we have no elite to fill the positions. It's the least we can do." We never bothered to even discuss it with them. The ancillary costs were more than the state college at full tuition. They can eat their high tuition when they're 30% under enrolled as the chips fall where they're going to fall. The odds of that many people getting jobs that would warrant the cost of education is totally unlikely. That's where the MRS degree can be most valuable.
You can build bridges all of you life and not be an engineer, but if you choke down enough classes and get one degree you're educated forever.
Maybe so, but at a good college or University, you can, if you want to, learn much more than just what you're majoring in. Groucho is right, education is a lifetime pursuit.
I suggest people considering college (of any sort) google for Dr. Gary North and watch the free video at his site on how to get the greatest-dollar-value college degree. As for my own experience: I went to Panhandle A. & M. College ("The Harvard of the Oklahoma panhandle") yet still managed to get by. Lived in four countries, traveled in a dozen others, was semi-retired by 50, wrote a published novel, and am now fully retired and living in a lovely active retirement community at 62. Oh -- years after my time at Panhandle A. & M. I got to visit Harvard (often called "the Panhandle A. & M. of eastern Massachusetts") where I was amazed by the appearance of the campus. Panhandle's was EASILY ten times more attractive. True: the room, board, books, and tuition at Panhandle must have cost nearly a thousand dollars a year -- but I feel it was worth it.
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