Monday, February 11, 2008

The Changing Community College

Last fall I received an email on my blog from a student here who absolutely loved her MVCC experience. She loved the small class sizes, the personal attention she received, the full sense of an active campus community and the engaging content of her classes. What prompted her email was the great concern she had when her younger sister came home from high school, here in Oneida County, and shared that her teacher told the class that MVCC was "only for the people who couldn't get into any other school" and further proclaimed "it's a different way to finish high school level courses, if you've failed in high school." When asked if he'd ever stepped foot on the campus, the teacher meekly responded..."never."

This teacher demonstrated extraordinary ignorance of MVCC and community colleges in general - sadly, his view is shared by many in this country. However, I am encouraged by the frequency with which this uninformed perspective is changing for the good. The Community College is like jazz - a uniquely American invention that has a positive effect on our individual lives in different ways. One major struggle MVCC and other community colleges have faced for years is the fact that high school teachers and counselors all have at least a four-year degree and many (along with many parents), in their influential position with teenagers assume that a four-year degree is a base standard. If that were true then why is it that for the past three decades no more than 25% of the adult population has earned a four-year degree? In 1985, Dale Parnell wrote a book entitled, The Neglected Majority. Parnell drew attention to the fact that Americans hold the four-year degree as a far-reaching ideal that fails to meet the educational needs of the vast majority of our population. If everyone should go to a university, then why are more than 50% of all first-year college students in America currently enrolled in community colleges?

Community colleges around the country have taken various paths in their development. From technical /vocational schools to junior colleges set up for transfer, community colleges now enjoy the wonder and complexity of a comprehensive mission - basically doing it all to meet the various needs of the individual and the community. MVCC's own path began as a technical institute in 1946. Today, that side of our mission provides for a comprehensive array of career and technical programs that prepare trained workers in health care, business, transportation, information technology and many other fields. The liberal arts and natural sciences part of our comprehensive mission allows students to gain their first one or two years of credits at MVCC and transfer to a four-year school. Regardless of the program, student learning is our focus and we strive to not leave student success to chance.

The efforts here at MVCC and at community colleges around the country have finally given this unique sector of higher education some traction in the American psyche. A few years ago when the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, spoke in Omaha, everyone in attendance was anticipating amazing insights from the Chairman about key indicators that would drive the future of our economy. Mr. Greenspan focused on education, and community colleges in particular, as the foundational element to a trained workforce and related robust economy. With the increasing costs of a four-year education, community colleges are finding their way into the mainstream. People are now realizing that master's prepared faculty members teaching first and second year college courses as their primary professional focus are actually more likely to provide a better educational experience than the first and second year graduate student teaching assistants found in so many freshman seminar courses at a university. Likewise, the "real-world" experience provided by our career program faculty is second to none in preparing students for the world of work.

Rather than sharing such an uninformed perspective with his students, that high school teacher would have done much better by those students to encourage them to make their own judgment. For many reasons, more and more students are finding their way to community colleges and finding meaningful and memorable educational experiences - Americans are changing and giving community colleges a second look and liking what they see. What do you think? Let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.