• 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.

Title

Fast Facts, and a Challenge

Let's get the basics right.

March 15, 2021

The AACC puts out a list of “fast facts about community colleges” annually. The latest is here.

It’s well worth the read. (Does the word “read” apply to infographics?) I’d like to make it required reading (or whatever the verb is) for journalists and politicians who talk about higher education as if it consists entirely of the Ivy League and/or major sports powers.

For example, 41 percent of the undergraduates in the U.S., including a majority of the Latinx and Native American undergraduates, attend community colleges. Most of us in the community college world know that, but relatively few journalists and legislators do. They should.

Eight percent of community college students already have a bachelor’s degree. That’s a striking number, and one that almost never comes up. Too many discussions assume a variation on the Great Chain of Being, in which there’s a strictly linear upward progression from high school to community college to four-year college. That happens, of course -- and would happen a lot more if the four-year schools would get their act together on transfer credits -- but reverse or lateral transfers are much more common than usually assumed. In the cases of bachelor’s degree grads, the most common reason to attend a community college is career change. This is where we get the frustrated accountant who wants to be a nurse, or the frustrated office manager who really wants to open a bakery. Those don’t fit neatly into the usual metrics for success, or the popular pipeline metaphors, but they’re valuable. To the extent that policies fail to acknowledge that, we shortchange the future.

The gender split among students -- a double-digit lead for women students -- has existed for some time. In the places where I’ve had access to the numbers, I’ve found a pretty consistent and striking skew by age: for students over 25, the gender gap is much larger than it is in the 18-22 group. Put differently, women over 25 are much more likely to come back to school than men over 25 are. The single best theory I have for that is opportunity cost; if women’s wages are generally lower, then for a heterosexual couple, the opportunity cost of sending her back to school is lower than the opportunity cost of sending him back. (It’s easier to live on the higher salary alone than on the lower salary alone.) Until COVID came along as the intervening variable to end all intervening variables, our online students skewed both older and more heavily female than our on-site students. Anecdotally, they included a lot of working moms, for whom the flexibility of online classes was crucial.

I was less taken with the statistics on funding sources, given that they vary so much by state. In some states, for instance, there is no local funding at all; in others, voters approve dedicated property taxes (millages) that bypass the legislative branch entirely. Similarly, tuition varies widely by state, largely as a function of combined state and local support. That can make interstate comparisons, or averages, somewhat misleading.

I’m not sure how, or whether, dual-enrollment students factor into the average age calculations. To the extent that they do, then a national average age of 28 is even more striking than it would otherwise be.

Taken together, what emerges is a picture of complicated institutions serving diverse student bodies on a shoestring. That sounds about right. The story here is not of coddled snowflakes yearning for safe spaces until their apps take off. It’s of hardworking people from all sorts of different backgrounds trying to make better lives for themselves, as they define them.

My annual challenge to The New York Times: in the coming year, let’s see if you can manage more stories about community colleges and their students than you do about Harvard and its students. Someday …

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