The Washington Post


Spotlight on Community Colleges

By Jay Mathews

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005; 11:06 AM

Karen Davis grew up poor in Appalachia and married at age 16. She wanted to go college, she said, but "my husband didn't want me smarter than he and his income kept me from getting financial aid to attend."

"Six years later," she said, "we had a son and two years later I was divorced, without child support and a teacher's aide job that paid $3.30 an hour."

 There was, however, hope for her, at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro, Ohio, just a few miles away. Davis was among 600 people who emailed me stories about community colleges after I wrote a column six weeks ago confessing my ignorance about them, and wondering if they deserve more attention than they are getting.

In the narrow, somewhat goofy way we self-important journalists define news, there wasn't much to report in this deluge of heartfelt messages. Community college are not getting as much funding as they need, but that is true for many worthy government endeavors. Connections with four-year colleges could be better. Students need more support.

But those emails revealed something that I think is worth front page treatment. Community colleges are having an extraordinary effect on American lives, rescuing people like Davis from difficult personal and financial situations again and again. They are educating 46 percent of the undergraduates in the country, and luring back into the world of learning millions of people whom our public schools have failed. Let me tell some of their stories, while I try to figure out why such important stories are so unlikely to make news simply because there are so many of them.

Davis said she was terrified to start college while trying to raise a child and keep a job. "My self-esteem was non-existent," she said. "My grammar, to quote my English professor, Mr. Ed Daniels, was 'atrocious.' " The college taught her what it called MUGS (Mechanics, Usage, Grammar and Sentence Structure) of writing, and dispensed daily words of encouragement. Daniel's lectures on Shakespeare "had a profound effect on this country girl," she said. He would correct her grammar: "I had used the word 'had' and therefore I had 'gone' not 'went' to the store."

"I learned a lot during hallway conversations with professors," she said. "At the four-year institution that conversational style of learning did not take place. That kind of true personal interest in me did not take place."

In my earlier column, I described U.S. Education Department senior researcher Clifford Adelman's new report on community colleges, with a new nomenclature of four-year drop-ins (regular college students who take community college courses in the summer), swirlers (students who go back and forth between four-year and two-year schools) and reverse transfers (students who start in four-year schools but move to two-year programs.) Many emailers saw themselves in those categories, plus some that Adelman had not mentioned.

Anna Howe said she got a degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz in a subject that quickly lost her interest, so she decided to pursue her love of architecture at a community college. She found an architectural drafting class full of students who were "making their own way, working nights, odd jobs, getting loans, all with the dream of being an architect."

Emily Sommer said she was a classic reverse transfer. She started at Kent State University, a four-year school, but found it torture to sit in class and listen to professors talk, after eight years of being home-schooled and learning things on her own. "I transferred to Hocking College [in Nelsonville, Ohio]--a very hands-on, technical school," she said. "For the past three years, I have been learning the way I learn best---by going out in the world, seeing and doing stuff, not just hearing about it." She has been to the Teton Wilderness Area, Andros Island in the Bahamas, several towns in Peru and is heading for the Haliburton Forest in Canada, all part of her studies. She will be attending a four-year school to get a degree in elementary education or natural resources, but "I don't have the slightest idea where I would be without Hocking College."

Henry B. Villareal, dean of enrollment services at the College of San Mateo (Calif.), where my brother worked for two decades, described his doctoral research on the progress of seven Latino students. All eventually earned bachelor's degrees in business, but started at two-year schools because they could afford it and because they needed remedial courses. They praised the small classes and friendly treatment at the community colleges, and contrasted that with the large, impersonal universities they transferred to. They survived to graduate, they said, because of the self-confidence and academic skills they had acquired in two-year schools.

Spotlight on Community Colleges

* Stephen Anderson was admitted to both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of the nation's top engineering schools, and Lake Land College, his local community college. When he discovered that community college students who transferred to UIUC on average earned higher grade-point averages than students that started at the four-year school, he chose LLC. "I've traded off a $45,000 price tag for the first two years at UIUC for the cost of gas to get me to school each day," he said.

* Victor P. Zabielski, assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College, said he is finding many doctorates who want to teach rather than worry about publishing papers and are filling community college faculties. "Of the last three hires here in my department," he said, "all have Ph.D.s, myself from Brown University, another from Johns Hopkins, and the third from the University of California--Davis.

* Christopher McNally, a tenured associate professor of automotive technologies at a community college in New York, warned me not to overlook the two-year students who are getting vocational degrees and have no use for a four-year school. "I have many twenty-something former students with annual salaries far exceeding my own," he said.

* Teresa Monroe of Amsterdam, N.Y., said her son as a high school senior took all of his courses at a local community college and started Binghamton University the next year as a sophomore. The use of two-year schools to invigorate the high school years is growing, and some early college high school programs enroll high school juniors as college students.

As I said in my first column, it is hard to overlook the vibrancy of two-year schools, even if they are ignored by elitist columnists like me. I was happy see one emailer confess the same fault. This was Clifton Truman Daniel, the public relations director for a community college in Chicago named after his grandfather, President Harry S Truman.

Daniel said he used to be a reporter and also ignored community colleges as uninteresting. Now he wonders why he ever felt that way. At Truman College, he said, "I like walking down the hall and hearing every language but English (more than 56 are spoken here) and I like the fact that most people don't look or dress like me (students come from more than 144 countries). Most of all, I like the sense of optimism, of hope and possibilities. I know that exists at four-year schools, too, but here it's different, more deeply felt. The opportunity to obtain an education is viewed as a gift."

That is the way that single mother, Karen Davis, sees it, 19 years after she got her associate's degree at Southern State Community College. It was a hard time, particularly when she went to a four-year school, and beyond. "My father did not speak to me for several years during and after obtaining my master's degree," she said. He told her she was getting "above my raising" and becoming an "educated idiot."

But those attitudes will not survive into the next generation. The son she had to raise on her own also started college at Southern State, and he is now at Ohio University in Athens, seeking a degree in aviation management. He doesn't qualify for financial aid because his mother is making too much money---she is the dean of instruction at Southern State--but she doesn't mind paying those bills.

"I see it," she said, "as my way of repaying society for providing me with the financial aid and convenient, affordable, quality education provided to me through the humble beginnings of the community college."