The Workhorse of Higher Education

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, August 7, 2005

How many millions of people have changed their lives by attending community colleges? How many adults with jobs and families have managed to acquire new skills by taking night classes at what we used to call the local junior college? How many underachievers have earned a degree by starting at a community college and then transferring to a four-year school?

When I recently asked washingtonpost.com readers for personal stories about community colleges, I received 600 e-mails, pretty close to a record for me.

Karen Davis recounted how she enrolled at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro, Ohio, when she was trying to raise a son on teacher's aide wages of $3.30 an hour, and found her life transformed by her professors there. Now she is dean of instruction at the same college, and her son, also a Southern State grad, is studying aviation management at Ohio University in Athens.

Stephen Anderson recalled how he chose Lake Land College, his local community college, rather than one of the nation's top engineering schools, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after he discovered that community college transfers did better at UIUC than students who started there as freshmen.

Victor Zabielski, an assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College, pointed out that the most recent hires in his department all hold doctorates from well-known universities: Brown, Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Davis.

With more than 60,000 students on six campuses, NOVA is the largest college in Virginia, but you'd hardly know it from the way newspapers like mine cover higher education. We mention community colleges about as frequently as pig rendering plants. Most of the media focus -- the best-colleges lists, guide books and SAT-prep frenzy -- centers on four-year schools, and often the most exclusive ones at that.

I, for instance, rarely write about these two-year schools, though they are educating nearly half of the college students in the country and represent one of the best bargains in higher education. A 2004 survey commissioned by the Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, a Ford Foundation program, found that more than half of respondents had attended or were attending a community college, and 63 percent had children or close family members who had attended one.

The nation's 1,200 community colleges are continually short of funds but full of eager new students. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, points out that even in highly educated Montgomery County, known for the Ivy League aspirations of its families, one out of four public high school graduates in 2004 enrolled at Montgomery College, a two-year school.

The community college system in the United States represents an egalitarian approach to higher education that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. Just ask the immigrants who fill many community college classes. In this country, you can be a complete screw-up in high school and still get into a community college, where a little work will allow you to transfer into a four-year school and earn a degree. Got a 620 on your SATs? No problem. Dropped out of high school and still haven't finished your GED? Not to worry. The community college will take you, though extreme slackers may be required to take remedial courses before tackling the college stuff.

The Mathewses, like most American families, owe community colleges a great deal. 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 community college as a senior media services technician. I also attended a community college. That is where I learned calculus, in a night class my senior year of high school.

And Jaime Escalante, the teacher whose story gave me my start as an education reporter, could not have created his successful inner-city calculus program at Garfield High School without the support of East Los Angeles College, the community college where he helped his students catch up on their math during the summer.

So maybe I ought to start giving community colleges their due. It wouldn't hurt to write a few stories about one of the best, and least-mentioned, ways American prepare for their lives.

Jay Mathews's e-mail address is mathewsj@washpost.com.


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