From the newsletter:
Our local community college is a perfectly nice place with solid buildings and green lawns. It’s not Princeton-level nice, but much better than the CUNY schools* where Steve and I worked many years ago. Yet, when you walk into the Student Center, you get smacked with a wave of misery. Maybe it’s the shuttered Dunkin Donuts by the front door. Maybe it’s the empty hallways and the rows of unused computers in the “one-stop center,” whatever that is. Maybe it’s the poorly lit bookstore that doesn’t seem to sell any books. All together, the place feels like one of those shopping malls where all the stores have left, and old people walk around to get exercise.
Ian and I were there last Monday to sort out some bureaucratic nonsense. The previous week, I helped Ian write an email to community college’s Office of Specialized Services to ask for a note-taker for his Introduction to IT class. Another parent told me that a note-taker — an accommodation that is really geared towards blind students — helped her autistic son, so I thought Ian would benefit, too. When they didn’t respond, I called and left a message on a machine. When they didn’t return my call, we drove there to get help.
By now, we all know that students did not learn much during remote education. And any teacher will tell you that schools are not back up to speed this year. This June, we’re going to graduate hundreds of thousands of students, who really didn’t get much schooling since March 2020. They’re going to be dumped into the world, not ready for a four-year college and needing remediation on basic math and reading skills. For many, a skilled trade may be the best option for them. Others are leaving four-year colleges with too many anxieties and mental health issues to continue.
All those young people suffering from issues related to the pandemic should be heading straight to their local community colleges to regain lost skills and to heal. But will they?
On paper, the mission of community colleges is to provide training and support for students, who graduate from high school, but are not ready for a four-year college. They should shore up weaknesses from a weak high school education, provide an on-ramp to a four-year school, and train students for high-wage skilled jobs. That’s their mission, and it’s a good one.
However, community colleges have always struggled to fulfill that promise, mostly because they are underfunded. As The Hechinger Report recently reported, New Jersey’s two-year schools get about $14,000 less per student annually than its four-year institutions do, according to the Center for American Progress. The gym teacher at our high school is paid more than the tenured faculty at the nearby community college. Adjuncts are paid less than $2,000 per class, for an entire semester.
Since the pandemic, community colleges really suffered, as is evident by their enrollment numbers, which are down by 15 percent. Our local community college still has only a fraction of their courses in-person; that’s why the campus feels like a dead shopping mall. Unlike the local public schools, there is no pressure from organized parents or attention from the media to get students back in a physical classroom.
Their funding issues haven’t improved since COVID. That Hechinger article pointed out that four-year colleges received far more federal help during COVID than these two-year schools. They had to use that pocket change to fix massive problems from COVID.
But I don’t need articles and statistics to see an institution that’s faltering. I can see it. It was impossible to get Ian help from the disability office without me going down there and putting on a snooty Professor Karen voice. I had to do that last spring, too, to get him enrolled in a class and get a student ID. (I wrote about those challenges at length.) Staff are dispirited, and expectations are low.
What needs to happen?
- Money is the first step. There needs to be a spending spree to create high quality support systems for students and hire better professors. We actually need to take money away from the four-year schools and give it to community colleges. Sorry.
- They need to get away from the jargon that clogs up the system. There’s so much talk about “pathways” and other higher ed conference lingo, and students have no idea what those slogans mean.
- There needs to be a better bridge between high schools and community colleges.
- They need to get student back on campus.
- We need national media attention to community colleges. There should be a rule. For every new article that mentions Harvard, that publication must write an article about a community college.
- To deal with the damage from COVID, certain classes — remedial English and Math, for example — and mental health services should be free and available to any student.
- There needs to be high-end career support with efforts to move students to local, available, good paying jobs.
That’s a long and ambitious laundry list of reforms, I know. But community colleges may the only place where young people, and not-so-young people, can recover from the damage of Covid.
*Higher Education Fun Fact: Bronx Community College – Steve was an adjunct professor there for several years — is the nicest looking of the CUNY campuses. It’s the former NYU campus, and its library was used as a set for the Thomas Crown Affair.