Kudos to Community CollegeApril 16th, 2010 at 17:16
My goal for college this time was to get through as quickly as possible and come out the other end with a degree in a practical profession (computer science in my case) where there were plenty of relatively interesting, relatively high-paying jobs. Sally and I were both paid organizers for the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, but we knew there was no way we could raise a family working some 70 hours a week (for a cause we believed deeply in) but for salaries that calculated out at maybe four or five dollars an hour.
My first go-round at Michigan, my course work was in TV and film production, leading me here to Los Angeles where I competed with a zillion other wannabes for low-paying entry-level jobs behind the camera in the entertainment business that might lead to higher-paying jobs in the future if I worked hard, was lucky and made the right connections. (See my piece on “Game Show, Gas & Gofer”.) With elementary, middle, and high school thrown in, that was some 17 years of my formal public school education that the state of Michigan must have spent over 100K on (considering K-12 and financial need grants I got for college at the state’s expense).
Still stuck in the mindset of that first go-round, I figured I would enroll directly in a nearby public university, like UCLA or Cal State Northridge. But my further research found that I had at least three semesters of math and science class requirements I needed to take beyond all the programming and electrical engineering classes that would constitute the core of my BS in Computer Science. Even state universities were getting pretty expensive, and I had very limited funds (and none available this go-round from parents or scholarships).
What I finally discovered was that I could take virtually all of these required math and science classes at the local community colleges for a fraction of the cost of the universities. Once finished, I could transfer to the university and graduate with no less of degree than if I had done all my coursework there. This discovery ended up saving me several thousand dollars that might otherwise have deterred me from returning to school. I could launch into a new round of higher education without the high financial stakes until I was well down the path.
I ended up taking classes at West Los Angeles Community College (WLACC) for three semesters. I took three semesters of calculus, two of physics and mechanical drawing, and one of chemistry and linear algebra. Sum total, it cost me $150 tuition ($50 per semester) plus $300 to $400 for books and supplies (which would have been comparable at a university). To top it all off, my classes were small and informal, and my teachers (particularly the woman who taught all my math classes) were mostly pretty good.
Hearing other people’s experiences later at various local community colleges, I think I was pretty lucky to have such small classes. My last semester there I had calculus and physics classes both with just four students. We didn’t even really sit in the desks of the school’s portable classrooms, instead spending the hour at the chalk board scrawling out the problems we had worked while informally chatting with each other and the teacher. I could not have asked for a more ideal environment for learning these very arcane disciplines.
WLACC played a critical role in helping me transition as a young adult from the world of work back into an academic degree program. For many older youth and young adults today, it appears to provide a “halfway house” of sorts between present realities and future goals.
In my case, after completing my third semester at WLACC, I was able to transfer to Cal State Los Angeles and get my BS in computer science in an additional two years of classes. I came to that institution academically “tuned up” by my time at WLACC and laser-focused on acing all my classes. I ended up graduating number one in my class with a 4.0 GPA.
I am surprised more kids coming out of high school (and wish to go to college) do not take advantage of community colleges to complete their first two years of college coursework in a much less expensive and high-stakes setting. I think the “junior colleges” still have a certain pejorative connotation to many, but it is such an opportunity to put your toe in the water of collegiate academics and get half way to a bachelor’s degree at much lower cost and perhaps with much less stress.
Many of the classes I had previously attended at four-year universities, were huge lectures with much less accessible teachers, particular the lower division ones. If one is to attend a large public university (rather than say a small private one), I don’t see any great academic disadvantage spending the first couple years going to community college instead and then transferring into a four-year program. The degree attained is not tarnished by spending the first two years taking classes somewhere else.
You may think it a stretch to compare community college with the iconic one-room school of an earlier age, but I think both capture our country’s original spirit of liberty, self-reliance and egalitarianism, values that seem to flag in many of our other educational (and non-educational) institutions today.
Today’s community colleges (at least from my experience here in California) offer a range of classes, open to everyone at a reasonable cost, and featuring the flexibility to fit your learning into the realities of life of work and or family. Students can range from high-school age up to older adults. These institutions generally lack the prestige and the pretense of more expensive, higher-stakes, more highly structured universities, which tend to be much more complex institutions with a dual focus of research and offering classes.
Now twenty-some years since my own experience, many of the young adult friends of my own grown kids are going to community college as their educational path after high school, either part or full-time, as they juggle life’s complications. My daughter’s friend is a 21-year-old single mom, with a four-year-old son, who is now attending a nurse training program. My daughter Emma, who was homeschooled during her high school years, was able to continue learning French at another local campus. Several of my son’s friends are pushing forward on technical or more traditionally academic paths in these more flexible, accessible institutions.
Every state is different, but in California, a high school age youth can take any and all community college classes for free (or at least that was the case prior to this recent budget crisis). This can be a boon, particularly for homeschooled kids, to chart a path into college using these schools in their “halfway house” role. For a highly motivated youth looking for technical training, community college can provide certificates in a number of computer and other technical skills that can be leveraged for entry-level jobs in technical support and help desks.
I could see this emerging as a way outside the box alternative path for some kids to the increasingly high-stakes, high-pressure, and highly regimented high school experience. You could in theory let your highly motivated kid take an array of community college classes instead of going through all the rigmarole of four years of high school. I actually would like to see some charter high schools experiment with migrating towards the more student-driven environment of a community college.
From my experience, self-motivated learning is the heart of a really strong education. If you are going set a threshold for knowledge and skills acquired to merit high school graduation, why not offer an array of courses that young students can take at their own pace and in their own time. There would be no time pressure to take something when you are a certain age or to finish “on time”. This approach could allow a more natural mixing of ages and remove the constant anxiety, adult and peer pressure to stay on and externally defined academic schedule, rather than ones own. Last I checked, life is not a race to the finish line (which is death after all).
Again, as I always say, there need to be “many paths” and these diminutive educational institutions are not for everybody. But they can be an effective path forward for highly motivated students looking for high value and flexibility at a low cost of dollars and stress.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Education