Monday, August 30, 2010

Characterizing the Freshman Class

Ever since serving as a Dean of Students 14 years ago, I've read the annual Beloit College "mindset list" that is intended to characterize the incoming college freshman student class across the country. Something has always troubled me about the list and I finally figured out what - the list is too narrow in scope to define community college freshmen.

Many years ago the list inspired a sociologist colleague of mine to survey his own Introduction to Sociology students with what he called "a cultural canon – things every college student should know." He would then report his findings to the College Senate with general summary results, along with his favorite answer to each question. I remember one of his favorite questions was,"What job does Clarence Thomas hold?" His favorite answer to that question was, "Linebacker."

The Beloit list is an annual ritual in higher education. It serves as a "back to school" marker for some. But, similar to my good friend's survey results, the Beloit list makes broad generalizations that limit its utility and application and, at times, it can be viewed as disrespectful to the students characterized therein. The list is produced by a four-year school and has been around for almost two decades but, with today's community colleges being what they are, we need to understand the differences between the distinctly different freshman classes entering these very different types of colleges.

More than ever, learning is for life - and I believe our community colleges reflect that fact clearly. Beyond the 6,000 individuals who will participate in one of MVCC's many non-credit offerings in the coming year, the freshman class is comprised of much more than recent high school graduates. When I think of a typical community college freshman class I think of:
  • Valedictorians and students who graduated in the top 10% of their class. Over 20% of Oneida County's top high school graduates are attending MVCC on Presidential scholarships this year;
  • Recent high school graduates who were not in the top 10% of their class;
  • GED recipients;
  • English language learners from refugee and immigrant populations;
  • Laid off workers who never thought they’d attend college;
  • First generation college students from families who have a limited understanding of the college experience;
  • Females returning to college to complete a degree or start a career that was interrupted by the most important job in the world – raising children;
  • Returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Homeless individuals living in cars or shelters while somehow completing their studies as part of their journeys to self-sufficiency;
  • Underemployed adults holding down two and three jobs to get by while taking a full load of classes;
  • Single parents taking care of their children, themselves, and sometimes even their parents while trying to advance or change their careers;
  • High school senior Bridge students finishing graduation requirements by enrolling in classes at MVCC;
  • Formerly incarcerated individuals looking for a second chance;
  • Reverse transfer students who didn't find what they were looking for at their four-year college;
  • Professionals in a different type of “post-graduate study”- enrolled in classes or short-term certificates to complement their bachelor or graduate degree.
The "average" MVCC freshman class defies stereotypes and is worthy of our respect. Our freshman class cannot be characterized simply by the events of the past 18 years. It is a rich tapestry reflecting the very fabric of the communities we serve. The diversity of our students, and the ability of our faculty to facilitate active learning that builds on the talent and experience of all students, helps create the magic and wonder that is the community college experience at MVCC.

And while the Beloit list changes each year, we celebrate the list found above each and every day, as these students come to us all year long. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.