I’m celebrating my 15th year of teaching English literature and creative writing at a community college, where I am a tenured faculty member. I was sharing this milestone with one of my students, who was graduating this past semester.
His friends, he confided, are teasing him about graduation. One such “friend” advised him not to bother attending the ceremony, saying, “It’s just community college.”
Yes, this stigma against community colleges is pervasive. Many of us have felt its sting. I know of colleagues who’ve been advised to scrub their CVs of any mention of having taught or taken classes at a community college when applying for jobs at a four-year university. Likewise, many of our students have had the experience of telling someone they’re enrolled at a community college, only to have that person shift uncomfortably and say, “Oh, well, that’s good, too.”
America’s disdain toward community college students is part of its long tradition of maligning the working class, a way of enforcing “stay in your place.” Our students endure lifelong negative effects; even those who continue to earn master’s or doctoral degrees may feel like they are not as good as their peers. Those of us who teach at community colleges are often regarded as though we were unable to attain positions at four-year colleges and, thus, settled for teaching at two-year schools.
It’s perplexing, especially since society has been preaching the same gospel for decades: higher education is the key to upward mobility. While it’s true that hard work yields positive results (just ask my writing students after they’ve revised a draft for the fourth time), anyone who grew up working class, as I did, can tell you it’s not so simple. Many excellent jobs don’t require a college degree, but those who pursue higher education learn a swift lesson: the cost of a college education is incredibly prohibitive. (Talk to people in their 30s and 40s who are still paying off massive student loan debt.)
Why, then, are we denigrating students who pursue higher education without incurring high debt? And why the condescension toward the professors who teach them?
I am a novelist who has won an American Book Award, the Grace Paley Prize and a USA Ford Fellowship, as well as state grants for my writing. I’ve been invited to speak at national conferences and read at numerous universities, including Rutgers and Stanford. But I remember the nervousness I felt as a first-generation college student who worked two jobs and feared I’d never adapt to campus life and college jargon. I only understood what a credit was in sophomore year, spent half my salary on textbooks every semester and felt like a fraud despite earning straight A’s.
Perhaps I love teaching at a community college because I see my own early struggles mirrored in the lives of my students. I wish people who draw false distinctions between “community college” and “real college” could see my students as I do. They would be humbled. Perhaps ashamed.
Here are some things Americans should know about community college but still don’t.
About 42 percent of the students enrolled in college are enrolled in a community college. We are educating a significant percentage of students. We are helping nearly half of all students to realize their dream of a college education.
Our students work hard. They have challenges and burdens you don’t understand if you’re the type to refer to community college as “the 13th grade.” While university students also have many challenges, those at community college are generally more likely to work full-time or multiple part-time jobs, raise children or care for elderly parents, while enrolled. In fact, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, “About 80 percent of community college students work, with 39 percent working full-time.”
Our students are also remarkable people. I teach people who could easily be honors students at a university but can’t afford to start there. We also teach students who barely made it through high school for various reasons; we center them in the learning process, and we make sure they move closer to their goals. Community college is a solid path, and we welcome all travelers, for as far as they want to go. We take everyone, and we do not judge them. Society does enough of that.
We don’t measure success in transfers. If you come to a community college and discover James Baldwin, learn how to build a website or study Chinese -- in other words, if you leave without a degree but with a broader worldview -- then we have succeeded.
Even though we emphasize teaching more heavily than research, community college faculty members are nevertheless scholars. My colleagues, many of whom have doctoral degrees, have published books, delivered papers at conferences in their fields and served as peer reviewers for scholarly journals.
It is difficult to attend an academic conference and have people glance smugly at the “community college” designation on your name tag, or to realize, upon reviewing the conference schedule, that only a handful of sessions out of hundreds have been designated for two-year college concerns. How do you explain to a colleague with a Ph.D. that you decided to stop at a master’s degree not because you found doctoral work beyond your abilities, but rather because you couldn’t wait to get in the classroom?
Other professors have deliberately referred to me as a teacher, not as a professor, “because that’s what they call you at a two-year school, right?”
Talk about outing your own elitism, especially since I’m not embarrassed to be compared to K-12 teachers, whose work I deeply admire.
Yes, to my students, I’m a teacher. I’m also a mentor. An adviser. Often, a friend.
I’m not denigrating students who attend four-year-schools or my colleagues who teach there. The pressures on faculty members within academe are well documented, and recently we have all been made more aware of the fact that four-year college students are not exempt from socioeconomic burdens.
I’m simply saying: respect our game. Recognize that your snarky attack on community colleges is an attack on working-class Americans. Our students do not have the privilege of strolling along on life’s plateau. They’re climbing mountains over here, and the only reason they’re looking down is to appreciate how far they’ve come.