• 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.


Hidden in Plain Sight

Changing the conversation.

February 9, 2015

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was trying to select a running mate, Dick Cheney chaired the search committee to find one. Eventually, of course, Cheney declared the search unsuccessful, and Bush put Cheney himself in the role. As Jon Stewart memorably reconstructed the scene, “Cheney took off his glasses, and let down his hair, and Bush suddenly realized that he had been looking for ... was right there all along.”  

You might not want to dwell on that image too long.

This story from the LA Times casts community colleges in the neglected-good-girl role. Apparently, a few years after California passed a law making transfer to the state universities easier, students are actually transferring to the state universities. Nearly 12,000 followed that path in 2013-4, as compared to fewer than a thousand in 2011-12.

California has a massive community college system, so even the 12,000 figure strikes me as low; I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue to grow for a while as word gets out.  

For all the talk of out-of-control college costs, student loan burdens, and the like, there’s already an option in place that rarely gets recognized as an option. The community college transfer route is hiding in plain sight.

To be sure, it takes different forms in different states, and even at different campuses. Some states have legislated guarantees of block transfer; some have joint admissions; some rely on articulation agreements. Even within states,you’ll find variations. HCC recently signed an agreement with Westfield State to guarantee a student a cap of $30,000 in tuition and fees for a four-year degree, using a two-plus-two model. (Living in dorms at WSU costs extra.)  

But the political discourse around community colleges continues to cast them entirely as job training centers, and to assume that they’re spending too much. That’s true even though they spend far less than any other sector of American higher education, and that the largest major at many cc’s is a transfer-oriented liberal arts major.

I’m thinking we need to get better at telling stories. Theresa MacPhail has a thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post about vaccine deniers, noting that vaccine panics have occurred repeatedly over time, and that they never get resolved through facts.  If anything, citing facts contrary to a deeply-held belief can motivate believers to dig in their heels. (The piece is particularly good on history. Did you know that the Anti-Vaccination League of America was founded in 1879? I didn’t.) It’s good to have reasons, but sometimes you need other strategies.  

Community college leaders are well-versed in numbers and anecdotes, but so far, haven’t broken through and changed the political image of community colleges. As long as they’re pigeonholed as either “less than” or strictly vocational, they won’t get the recognition and support they should. At some point, we need to shift the discussion to stories that will actually break through. If Dick Cheney can do it, we can do it.


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