Community college education breaks barriers

Creative Commons license, Sean MacEnteeBelieve it or not, I don’t make a living writing hyper-regional tidbits for a sub-mid-level blog in northern Minnesota. I’m a teacher. Specifically, a teacher at Hibbing Community College (an institution not affiliated with my opinions here on the blog). I do, however, believe my role as a community college teacher is related to my mission to modernize and diversify northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. I don’t view these “jobs” all that differently.

I’m a huge fan of the show “Community” on NBC, despite that fact that it pokes fun at community colleges. Everyone needs their escapist art. But I’m also a huge fan of this article: “Community colleges are more rigorous than you realize” by Gina Sipley on PolicyMic.

Sipley argues that unlike many four-year colleges, even the elite private schools, community colleges are better outfitted to help students who arrive to college academically unprepared, something that — thanks to grade inflation and test-based teaching — seems to be a problem spanning all of higher education. And one must exert a lot of effort to truly master skills not learned in high school, amid what are often more difficult personal struggles for community college students who can’t afford or don’t have the connections to get into schools with more sterling reputations.

Sipley concludes:

If the community college experience were televised like The Amazing Race, rather than parodied on Community, the students who managed to attain degrees while working multiple jobs, raising kids, losing homes, and commuting via long, circuitous, and unreliable public transportation routes (yet still make it to class on time) would be fought over by every major employer. Community college students are the ones who demonstrate true academic grit and it’s employers’ loss if they don’t realize what academica already knows: it can be far more difficult to attain an associate degree than a PhD.

By all means, read the whole thing.

I teach the Intro to Communication course at my college, a class that almost everyone has to take. The up side of that is that I get to meet a wide variety of students, a true representative sample of the college and community. The downside is that I only get them one semester and often don’t know what happens to all of them after they leave. Because I read the names at graduation I do know that many don’t get to cross the stage.

It’s hard.

It’s hard to put aside the temptation of working more hours at a low skill job so you can pay for things your kids need, or pay down some credit card debt. Many students leave college to work, especially when the economy is “OK” as it is now. It’s hard to keep focused on college when you have children, especially young children. Many students leave to care for children. Sick parents. Mental illness. Drug and alcohol addiction. Transportation. COST. I lose students to these factors every semester, in every class I teach. And you can point fingers all you want, but these are real problems that affect our real population in this country.

Many of our community college students — not all of them — more than half of them in good years, persevere. I read their names at graduation. They overcome abuse, poverty and low self-esteem. I can honestly say most of them actually improve their ability to write, read and think (Do all university kids do this?) And they put themselves in a position to make more, do more and serve more in our community, and many others. Sure many don’t make it, but the ones that do truly broke through barriers. That’s worth celebrating.

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