• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


A Delicate Marketing Challenge

Community college as a second chance.


March 29, 2016

I had a chance to speak to a community group recently, and was quickly reminded that community college serves many purposes. Several of the members were very interested in community college as a fallback option for a grandkid who partied a little too hard in his freshman year at Nameless University.

“Reverse transfer” has two meanings.  

The one we like to talk about, and which has become popular in the last few years, is the student who does a bunch of credits at the community college but transfers without actually graduating. In that context, reverse transfer refers to sending back some credits from the four year school to pick up the associate’s along the way. It’s a kind of insurance policy in case life happens during the junior or senior year: instead of walking away as a dropout, you walk away as an associate’s graduate.  

But then there’s the other kind, which presents a bit of a marketing challenge.

The other kind is the student who started at a four-year school, ran aground in some form, and came home. Sometimes the issues are financial -- parental job loss or medical crisis -- but often they’re some version of “failure to thrive” in a dorm setting. That may mean too much partying, or too much distraction, or too much culture shock.  

For a student like that, a retreat-and-regroup can be just the thing. Stay at home, take small classes at low cost, and get back on track. When you’ve recovered, then take another shot at a bachelor’s, if that still holds appeal. Even if it doesn’t, at least you’re leaving with something to show for your efforts, and with some skills beyond what you got in high school.

I heard multiple versions of that story, both biographical and autobiographical. The second-chance setting of a community college allowed someone who made some youthful mistakes an opportunity to recover. There’s real value in that.

But it’s a tricky thing to publicize. College-as-rehab or college-as-purgatory isn’t the image we really want to put forward, even though we welcome students who might need exactly that. It’s the kind of message best sent through word-of-mouth, particularly via parents and grandparents.

It’s also well below the radar of policymakers, except when they talk about their own families. In the gap between policy and family life lay the challenge.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college do a reasonably good public presentation on this kind of reverse transfer? If so, what did it look like?


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