Kudos to Steve Robinson, the President of Owens Community College in Toledo, for attacking the community college stigma directly. He has even started a hashtag on Twitter -- #endccstigma -- to organize the campaign.
Yes, yes, yes. But it goes even deeper than that.
We’ve all heard the epithets -- thirteenth grade, “high school with ashtrays,” and the like. (To be fair, the “ashtrays” one is a bit anachronistic…) Some of it comes from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member. If we define educational excellence by exclusivity -- that is, by how many people are turned away -- then it follows that a place with open-door admissions must not be any good. And some of it comes from the related equation of cost with quality.
That said, I think the roots of the stigma go much deeper, and have very little to do with anything that community colleges are actually doing or not doing. Although it’s about us, it’s not really about us. That matters, because it suggests limits to the likely payoff of a merely frontal attack.
High schools compete with each other. Private high schools compete even harder. Some of that is obvious and relatively straightforward, like in athletics. Some of it is in standardized test scores, with all of the race- and class-stratification that implies. Particularly with private high schools, though, some of it has to do with competitive college admissions. I’ve seen high schools publicize the percentage of students who go on directly to four-year colleges, as if that were purely a measure of the quality of the school. (I’ve seen magazines do something similar, ranking districts by the percentage of students who went directly to four-year schools. If you’re a principal on a hot seat to improve your rankings, you may know that they’re contrived and kind of silly, but you’ll do what you have to do.) If a high school sends more students to a community college, even if they subsequently and successfully transfer ‘upwards,’ that counts against the high school. Residents who see their school drop in the rankings -- and who fear a drop in property values -- may not have much patience for lessons in statistics. They want to protect their investments.
For private high schools, the pressure is especially great. Why pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition to send your kid to a private high school if the result is getting into the same college he could have attended coming from your local public school? Community college stigma is part of what private high schools sell, whether consciously or not. Deprive them of that, and you threaten their reason to exist. You can expect them to respond accordingly.
Over a hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen noted that the prestige of a college was in inverse proportion to its usefulness. He suggested that the ability to indulge in uselessness was a sign of wealth and power, both of which bring prestige with them. That’s why you can major in economics at Princeton, but you can’t major in business there. (He even carried the insight over to clothing. Ties are utterly useless and kind of fragile; you can’t really work with your hands while wearing one. Therefore, by wearing one, you are advertising that you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Their prestige is a function of their uselessness. I consider this reason #763 to get rid of ties entirely, but that’s another post.) The more prestigious the college, the fewer “vocational” programs it offers. Community colleges fare miserably on that index, since most of them are “comprehensive,” meaning that they offer both vocational and transfer programs. The mere presence of the Automotive Tech program, in this view, tars the English department by association. Elite places don’t like to get their hands dirty.
Happily for community colleges, that distinction is starting to fray. As the cost of higher education escalates far beyond what most families can pay, and entry-level salaries remain largely stagnant, the middle- and upper-middle-classes are starting to look at the employability of a given college’s graduates. After a century of being under suspicion, ‘usefulness’ is starting to gain some respect.
Still, exclusivity has a market. Last week I was in a meeting about a town that has some very high-end real estate development happening. The discussion turned to gentrification, and the ways in which high-end development often prices lower-income locals out of town. When I mentioned that the folks buying the high-end places weren’t really our constituency, the comment got knowing chuckles. To the extent that racial and economic exclusivity matter to people with options, colleges built on inclusion will be at a disadvantage.
So yes, by all means, let’s attack the stigma directly. But let’s also not make the mistake of thinking that it’s only about itself. It’s part of a much larger set of issues around race, class, and the conflation of privilege with prestige. In redeeming community colleges, we need also to redeem the idea of equality. That’s a tall order, and one that will provoke virulent resistance. But without it, we won’t get much beyond a hashtag.