Why I Ignore Community Colleges

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005; 9:05 PM

It is time for a shameful confession. Despite all I have written about college admissions, college lessons and college life, there is one higher education topic I almost never touch. That is community colleges.

I am not alone. My newspaper rarely writes about these two-year institutions that prepare students both for jobs and for transfer to four-year colleges. The other newspapers and magazines I read rarely write about them. Television? Forget about it.

And yet according to the American Association of Community Colleges [www.aacc.nche.edu], community colleges have 46 percent of all U.S. college undergraduates. For the kind of students I am personally most interested in, those who are struggling to get an education and need the most support, community colleges are very important.

Why then have I ignored these schools, of which there are nearly 1,200 in the United States? There are many reasons, most of them not very good ones. The most important is that my editors and I know that the students and parents most likely to read the Washington Post are the least likely to want anything to do with community colleges. They share the middle class dream of getting into four year schools, and don't think much about the hard work being done in community colleges to move low-income and immigrant Americans into the middle class.

That isn't much of an excuse, and my failure is particularly embarrassing because I have many personal connections to community colleges. Both of my parents graduated from Long Beach (Calif.) City College. My brother Jim, who got his bachelor's degree after transferring from the College of San Mateo (Calif.), retired recently from a 22 year career at that same community college as a senior media services technician. Here in the Washington area there are many dynamic community colleges. Even in affluent Montgomery County, where I usually write about the four-year-college frenzy, about one out of every four public high school graduates in 2004 enrolled at Montgomery College that year.

Now I am seeing some interesting new research on community colleges. The U.S. Education Department in February put out a report, "Moving Into Town--and Moving On: the Community College in the Lives of Traditional-Age Students." It was written by Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst, and deserves more coverage than it has been getting.

Before I summarize some of Adelman's findings, let me make a pathetic appeal for help. There is a lot of interesting data in that report, but I am a journalist and need to write about living, breathing people, not just numbers. If you are attending a community college, or have attended one recently, please send me your thoughts. What do you like about your college? What don't you like? Is it true that it is hard to get into some community colleges because of budget cutbacks? Tell me how these interesting if undercovered institutions fit into your life.

My email address is mathewsj@washpost.com, and I would like to do another column about what I learn from you.

Adelman's title, "Moving Into Town," reflects his image of a community college as "a human settlement, . . . the fundamental commerce of which is the delivery of learning in different districts (subject matter) by various means and schedules."

"Those who move into town to participate in its fundamental activity, students, establish residence of differing periods of time and intensity," he said. "Some are merely tourists; for others, this study uses metaphors of short-term visitors, longer term tenants, and homeowners, each with a different type of stake in the time and place of the institution."

I think of community colleges as places that serve two kinds of students, recent high school graduates who want a four-year degree but don't have the money or the grades to get into a four-year college, and older students with jobs and families trying to get a degree in their off-hours so they can get better opportunities.

Adelman argues that until policy makers can see clearly the different behaviors and sizes of these two groups, and a few others he uncovers, they won't be able to choose wisely among the types of support that can make a difference for students.

One of his most interesting findings is that the recent high school graduate group is getting larger. Forty-two percent of all community college students are under the age of 22, a big increase from just 32 percent a decade ago.

Adelman is using cohort data, reports from thousands of people who are regularly surveyed as they move from high school through college and into their working lives. These are some of the most useful statistics available, since they aren't comparing the high school class of '85 to the class of '95, two different groups of people, but looking at the class of '85, the very same people, ten years later to see how their lives have changed, and how exactly they have used the community colleges in their towns.

He examines one phenomenon I thought was very interesting, if for no other reason than I had never read a story about it before. He said 26 percent of what he calls "traditional-age" students, the recent high school graduates, who were enrolled in community colleges in the 1990s had started in other kinds of institutions, mostly four-year schools.

He looks closely at this group and finds small but revealing variations, like Darwin checking bird beaks on the Gallapagos Islands. There are what he calls the 4-year drop-ins, who remain enrolled at their four-year colleges but take community college courses in the summer. There are the swirlers, who go back and forth between four-year and two-year schools. And there are the true undergraduate reverse transfers, who start in a four-year college but fail to graduate and move to a community college.

The executive summary of Adelman's report can be found online, and the 175 page paper version of the full report is available free while copies last through www.ed.gov/edpubs.html or by email to edpubs@inet.ed.gov. The Education Department has made a good effort to get the report noticed, despite the resistance of ignoramuses like me. Experts I trust tell me the Bush administration is paying more attention to community colleges in constructive ways than any of its predecessors, and its work on "Moving into Town" is one sign of that.

Some of the stories Adelman tells are very straightforward, of the sort community colleges themselves like to cite as signs of their success. "For 1992 12th graders whose first postsecondary institution was a community college and who earned more than 10 credits from community colleges, 37 percent transferred to a four-year college by December 2000," he said. "Of those who transferred, 60 percent had earned a bachelor's degree by December 2000."

But there is a lot more to the growing importance of community college than that. So help me redeem myself by telling me what you know.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company