It was a useless waste of time. A dozen students stood or sat in a rough semicircle and stared for minutes at a time at a black rectangle. Seconds stretched, and eyes strained. My colleague and I could feel the question rising like steam from our students’ minds: What purpose could possibly be served by this? And then a student, let’s call her Maggy, raised her hand.
“It’s not all the same,” she said. “Look. I think this part is like the letter ‘K.’”
She pointed, and sure enough, her classmates nodded. In what had seemed an undifferentiated mass of black, an area of black somehow different could be made out -- a heavy vertical, met halfway down by a heavy diagonal, indeed like the top part of a capital “K.”
The black rectangle was abstract painter Ad Reinhardt’s Triptych, the setting was the Smith College Museum of Art and the students were taking a course on experimental American art and literature of the mid-20th century. And half of them were enrolled at the nearby Holyoke Community College.
I developed and taught the course with an art historian from HCC. We had two goals for our collaboration: to introduce students at both of our institutions to the challenging ways of seeing and representing associated with movements like Abstract Expressionism, and to bring community college students to a selective liberal arts college so that they could test the waters.
Our students learned some important things about the rewards of close, painstaking attention. Reinhardt and other artists helped them see the value of patient, open-minded looking. I, too, learned something important or had something I already knew confirmed: contrary to conventional wisdom, community college students are not simply focused on vocational skills training or immediately remunerable majors like nursing or business. They are as intellectually curious and ambitious, as motivated and committed to learning for its own sake as the students I have taught at Smith College and Yale University.
While more than 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer to a four-year institution and earn a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent have earned one after six years. According to research from the American Talent Initiative, more than 50,000 community college students who do not transfer to a four-year school each year have attained at least a 3.0 grade point average, and around 15,000 have a grade point average of at least 3.7.
We in higher education are missing a great chance to address a pressing need; these students’ earning potential would benefit palpably from a bachelor’s degree. More than that, though, we in four-year colleges and universities are losing an important opportunity for our own institutions and our own teaching. Every year, our classrooms, seminars and labs are deprived of thousands of talented students hungry for the rewards of liberal education: training in critical thought and clear, powerful communication. And the purposeful questions they ask sharpen everyone’s understanding. They keep me on my game.
How can we make more legible and available the path from community college to four-year colleges and universities? Courses like mine (enrolling students from both the community college and the liberal arts college and team taught by faculty members from both) bring students into an environment where they see what the resources of the four-year school look like -- in our case, students got to spend time with works in the college’s art museum, some of which were brought from storage just for them, and in the libraries’ special collections. But they also learn what kind of preparation is required and what support is available. Most important, community college students get to experience the dynamics in the four-year college classroom. They contribute to the discussion and find their voices -- discovering, as they do so, that their voices can be just as persuasive as those of any others.
But importing community college students to a four-year campus is not the only path. There are other, less resource-intensive, ways as well. College and university faculty members can guest lecture in community college courses, setting aside time to talk about transfer opportunities and processes at their four-year institutions. Or they can invite students in a relevant course at the local community college to come to their campus for a session or two, inviting them to do the reading and to participate in class discussion. The important element is collaboration with community college faculty, so it’s often smart to spend some time building the infrastructure for such activities: relationships with the colleagues whose students we hope will transfer to our institutions.
Maggy, who discerned something in the shape of a “K” in the murk of Reinhardt’s Triptych, began her Smith College career this fall. A student from the second iteration of our team-taught course has also transferred to Smith and will begin her studies here in the spring. Their majors? Art history and English literature.