Community College – flipping the notion of second chances and self-worth

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Matt Reed, who blogs for Inside Higher Ed under the moniker “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” hit the nail on the head when he commented on the distinction between community colleges and four-year institutions. In “Standing Calvin on His Head” (Reed, 2/12/15), he discusses how community colleges provide opportunities for students who have often seen little respect (both external and internal) for their educational merit and personal value.

They [Community Colleges] assume that all students are worthy of respect, and that there’s enough success to go around.  They assume that you can’t tell who’s capable just by looking at them, so you have to give everyone a shot. You do that because the students are worth it. They’re worth it before they even get here. If anything, the burden is on the institution to prove itself worthy of the students.

Read the full article here.

Reed was responding to an editorial by Kristin O’Keefe (The Community College/’Real College’ Divide, 2/11/15, New York Times. O’Keefe’s editorial posed a sensitive response to an educator speaking about high school graduation criteria to parents and incoming high school freshman. She then went on to say that these were the minimums if your child would “go to real college – you know, not community college.”

Besides the absolute insensitivity to the real possibility that there were community college graduates in the room, her comments spoke to a divide that persists among attitudes towards those who make community college their choice for higher education. And a myriad of reasons – apart from being prepped for higher ed – may exist in making that choice. O’Keefe explains that community college students who succeed, or at least persist over long periods of time, have characteristics worthy of our respect.

To all those who had a college experience like mine: Imagine adding a full-time job, financial worries and family obligations to your mix of classes? Imagine if your bus is late or your babysitter didn’t show up? I know this: Any student who is able to juggle a multitude of responsibilities and earn a degree is impressive. Wouldn’t that be a person you’d want to hire?

Read the article in the New York Times by O’Keefe that precipitated Reed’s blog.

Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!

The difference between a degree… and an education

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In a poignant essay titled “Office Hours” by Preston Hutcherson, he goes out to seek whether the price of tuition at a private university where he is a student means a better education than that at a nearby community college. The story he tells serves as a tribute to two professors, one at each institution who reached out and made a deep connection.

When we talk about student success at community colleges, we often debate how to define it. Is it retention from one semester or year to the next? Is it completing a class? Or is earning a degree or credential the ultimate definition of success?

In young Mr. Hutcherson’s essay, he makes the distinction about that kind of success through the connections he made, by sitting down in the offices of each of his professors – one at the expensive private university, and the other at the community college. To him, they each made all the difference between earning a degree… and receiving an education.

This is not only a feel-good story about what we do at community colleges, it is a reminder that we, who choose to work and teach here, are committed to offering the best education possible, regardless of what tuition the student pays.

This one is really worth the read.

https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/09/29/essay-finding-great-teaching-expensive-university-and-community-college