Community college is not quite college

As long time readers know, I teach off and on at a community college. More specifically, I teach off and on at Northern Virginia Community College, one of the nations largest community colleges. I taught a Computer Fundamentals course in the spring semester, took the summer off, and am back teaching the same course for the fall semester.

Community colleges serve some valuable purposes. Primarily, they help bridge high schoolers that never quite excelled in high school with the college education most need these days to succeed in life. This is a sizeable crowd, more so these days than most due to the severe economic recessions. NVCC like many community colleges is bursting at its seams. Enrollment is up over ten percent from last year. We have classes that start at 6:30 a.m. We are occupying space in excess office buildings because the campuses are not big enough. This is good as otherwise many of these students would not be able to take a class at all, or would need to extend their education.

In addition to those who never soared in high school, NVCC serves other groups that are arguably marginalized and disenfranchised, but should not be. We get many ESOL (English as a Second Language) students, people just auditing courses, senior citizens with too much time on their hands and a fair number of students who attend community college because apparently they cannot think of anything better to do.

After nine years of off-and-on teaching, one thing I can say for sure: community college is not “real” college. At least, it is not the college experience I knew attending a four-year institution some thirty plus years back and this has me worried. Many of the courses that are taught, while necessarily from a business purpose, are of dubious academic worth. I can use the Computer Fundamentals class that I teach as an example. About a third of the class imparts what I consider to be real knowledge: the basics of computer science. Most of the class is really about learning the Microsoft Office Suite: Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Access.

Granted the Microsoft Office suite is ubiquitous, whether you work in business, government or academia. Microsoft Word is the typewriter grown up. Microsoft Excel is a fancy tool for analyzing data. Microsoft Access is a desktop database. Still, in my opinion anyone going to college should be able to master any of these applications on their own. If Microsoft Office should be taught at all in college, it should be as an elective. These applications are not that hard to learn. Each comes with tutorials you can take at your leisure to learn basic and more advanced features. The expectation should be that if you are in college, you have already acquired enough intelligence and curiosity to independently learn and use these desktop applications as need dictates.

The fact that most of my students are baffled with these applications (even while they use them regularly) tells me that community college is essentially high school extended. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush. Not all community college courses are like this one, but many if not most seem to be. Moreover, perhaps because instructors recognize they are often working with academically challenged students, they may tailor their courses to the lowest common denominator. This seems to be manifested in the low volume of homework and exams that are dumbed down.

As a college freshman, I suffered through many courses I did not particularly like. Some were more challenging than others, but none of them were dumbed down. As a full-time student, generally taking four to five classes a semester, between classes, studying and group projects I remember typically putting in ten to fourteen hour days six to seven days a week. I remember craving lots more free time than I actually had. For the most part, I had no time for extracurricular activities like dating and drinking.

I doubt that is true of most of the full-time students that I teach. My daughter, age 20, also happens to be attending NVCC. I suspect she has a lot of natural intelligence, but she rarely needs to study for any of her classes. Mostly when she gets home from classes she has volumes of free time, much of which is spent playing World of Warcraft. Her friends who are attending four-year colleges have a much different experience. From the feedback I get from her, they are working their fannies off, just like I did. In short, they are being academically challenged. I doubt this is true for most of my students.

In our modern age, we need community college to bridge the gap between high school and real academia. I just wish that community colleges would be upfront and acknowledge that for the most part community colleges are college-lite. If NVCC is typical of most community colleges, it is perhaps thirty percent of the academic experience that they would receive at a four-year university.

Community colleges do serve a number of vital purposes. As a place to acquire new job skills rather cheaply and without traveling far, they are vital. As a place to learn business skills, they excel. As an example of egalitarianism at its finest, they do a great job. The barrier to entry is low. While it depends on the course and the instructor, most courses do not qualify as a proper academic experience. They tend to convey much more of the how to rather than the why. Few require much critical thinking.

I try hard to set a higher standard, but it is difficult. First, the material is not particularly challenging to master, although my students, who often skimp on studying, might disagree. I assign term papers and set what I hope are high standards for research. Despite howls from my students, most of my exams are not multiple choice, but require them to express in their own words some key concept. I used to provide the notes I lectured with and Powerpoint slides, but when it became apparent they could not even be bothered to study from these, I stopped. Moreover, I was contributing to the problem. To really master the material, they need to take their own notes and learn from them. I even provided advice on how to study at the start of the semester, which apparently many never picked up in high school. Some students in every class will excel, and I will do my best to make the material more interesting, although it is pretty dry. Most seem to prefer mediocrity to exceptionalism.

While I can try to raise the bar in my own class, clearly the bar needs to be raised overall in community colleges. Instructors need to set higher standards. We do students no favors if the majority of them graduate with Gentleman C’s, or B’s that are really C’s. These students, like it or not, will be leading our great nation someday. Unless we academics set higher standards, America of the 21st century is likely to be a place where the mediocre, rather than the exceptional, are running the country. In other words, we will be a nation in decline.

Here is my advice to today’s high schoolers. If you can afford it, attend a four-year university. I suspect that overall you will have a much better academic experience. You should not be able to skate your way to a four-year degree, and if you can, I would lower the credentials of the college giving you the degree. You need to master every course that you take to succeed. Never settle for mediocrity, or you may think that is the way America works, because it is not, at least not yet. Always set a high standard for yourself. If instructors like me are not giving you the academic experience you imagine, raise holy hell. You deserve the best that I can give you.

3 thoughts on “Community college is not quite college

  1. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on the recent proliferation of online Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even Doctorate degrees. Do you think they’re similar to community college courses or traditional college courses? It seems like quite a few people favor these institutions but I’m not entirely sold on the idea which is why I’ve gone the traditional route and am at a brick-and-mortar university.

  2. What really matters (or should matter) is the institution’s accreditation. There are some online universities like University of Phoenix that have great accreditation. Many others are diploma mills. Any employer worth their salt will check the university’s accreditation.

    I agree there is no substitute for a real class.

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