The latest critique of American higher education, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It  by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, has been getting quite a bit of buzz lately, and it's the buzz, not the thesis of the book proper, that I wish to discuss. But in case you haven't heard: The authors excoriate American higher education for no longer prioritizing the teaching of undergraduates and suggest a number of remedies. They also name the names of a handful of colleges that they think do their job well. The choices were, well, idiosyncratic, and not everybody appreciated the advice.
A typical reaction can be found on The Chronicle of Higher Education website's online forum . The pseudonymous poster "collegekidsmom" writes:
It was so annoying. It was saying that you could get a great education at Ole Miss or Evergreen State College or Raritan Valley Community College. Does she think we (parents, students, readers) are all stupid? I don't really think that there is much overlap between the Harvard applicant pool and the colleges the author finds a better value.
I must admit that I bristled when I read that. In the mid-2000s, I attended Raritan Valley Community College, or RVCC as it is known locally in northern New Jersey, as a non-degree student. Although I already had a bachelor's degree, I enrolled there at the last-minute because, alas, I desperately needed the health insurance coverage that having a full-time credit load would qualify me for. In that way, RVCC saved me.
RVCC also changed me. Although I had other than strictly intellectual reasons for being there, I signed up for courses that interested me: Feminist Philosophy, Women in Literature, and Introductory Sociology. I did the same for two subsequent semesters, takings courses on science fiction, film studies, minority relations, deviance, and so forth. The classes were as good as what I’d taken as a "proper" college student, and the new ideas challenged my ways of thinking about the world. I'd like to believe they made me a better person. It was also my first encounter with sociology. I mention sociology in particular since I am now a sociology PhD student at a university in England some would say is the best in the world , and I certainly would not have gotten there had it not been for my experiences at RVCC.
Okay, maybe "collegekidsmom" is right. The RVCC and Harvard applicant pools don’t overlap that much, and I’m no exception. I did not bother applying to Harvard when I was in high school because I had this vague, ill-formed notion that if I went there I wouldn’t be educated by the really famous scholars, anyway. (Probably true, but of course, there is a lot more to Harvard than what happens in the classroom, and it undoubtedly has much to recommend for it.)
Nor do I imply that everyone who attends RVCC is going to have my life, either. It’s been a long and circuitous journey, and those community college classes were only the beginning.
I would argue, however, that we ought not be too quick to judge. Any school that throws open its gates--as community colleges do--does not necessarily know precisely who will walk on through and what they will become after they are gone. That's precisely the point. At RVCC, there were recent high school graduates, mature students, parents, political activists, nurses-in-training, recovering anorexics. Some were driven and super-smart; others struggled with the five-paragraph essay. Most, including myself, also had jobs. Everyone had different reasons for being there and something different to take away.
If a great education is what we’re after, it indeed can be found in many places. Education is a social good, not just a private one, and for this reason I firmly believe that anybody who wants an education should be allowed to have it. It infuriates me whenever I hear the arch assertion--and I hear it a lot in England--that not everybody "needs" a college education anyway. How does one define "to need" in a way that does not presume to know better about other people’s life chances than those people themselves? In this context especially the long-term public divestment in higher education troubles me, and I can’t help but wonder if a small part of the reason its happening is because those with privilege in the United States have forgotten that "Ole Miss or Evergreen State College or Raritan Valley Community College" might not be just a great education for "them" but also for us.
Comment if you’ve seen an Ivy Leaguer taking classes at a community college. 'Cause I have, and I can’t be the only one.
Cambridge, England in the United Kingdom
Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Regarded as one of the top manga experts in the United States, she has lectured and published extensively on the American manga publishing industry in both academic and journalistic contexts. She can be reached through her website .