Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taking the Stigma Out of Community College

Every year all of the counselors in my building do a "meet and greet" lesson with our new 9th grade students.  They get to see where our offices are, we talk about graduation requirements, transcripts and grades, and let them know about the vast array of services we, as school counselors, are able to provide them during all four years that they are with us.  As we are also trying to create a college-going culture,  we ask them about their goals after high-school.  We do these lessons in small groups, so the students are able to hear several of their peers' responses.  Most of them state they are planning on attending one of the popular state universities here in Virginia--UVA, Virginia Tech, VCU, etc.  A few years ago during this activity, one of my new students stated they were thinking of going to Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA as its known in this region.  Another student laughed at this answer, stating that "NOVA is a school for losers."

It was at this point that I knew that we, as a school counseling team, had our work cut out for us.

I was listening this week to my favorite radio show, Tell Me More, on NPR, and they had a story about college students who drop out of school with no degree and mountains of debt that they are responsible for paying off.  Anthony Carnevale, from the Center on Education and the Work Force at Georgetown University, was the guest, and he had this to say:
"We've come to a point where people have to get some kind of post-secondary education or training to join the American middle class and we've yet to find a way to help people make choices to make them savvy about how they invest in their education." (source: www.npr.org)
I think it is pretty well common knowledge at this point that in order to have any realistic fighting chance at economic security in your life, you need some sort of post-secondary education.  However, as I've written about before, I think we need to continue to refine our definition of "college."  College is not necessarily a four-year degree.  There are many certificate programs and associates degrees that will train people for well-paying jobs and careers in a variety of fields.  In fact, for many of these jobs a four-year degree may not be preferable over a two-year degree that really hones in on the skills necessary for that particular occupation.  Further, if we look at six-year graduation rates from four-year colleges and universities around the country, it is clear that a large percentage of students will not be finished with a degree within that time frame, depending upon the specific school.  In fact, in the United States, the average graduation rate at four-year public universities within four years is 31.3%, and within six years is 56%.  That means that only a third of these students will have a degree in four years, and a little more than half within six years.  Some students may be working full or part time while going through school and are thus taking classes at a slower rate than other students.  Additionally, there are always going to be exceptional circumstances that might allow for some of these students who do not make it within six years.  However, you have to begin to wonder if a four-year university was the best fit in the first place for many of these students, and did they have all the information necessary to make a "savvy" choice, as Mr. Carnevale asks?

Enter the school counselor.  We can help students and families make "savvy" and informed choices about their post-secondary options, and part of those conversations needs to be about the benefits of local community colleges.  With only an estimated 60% of first-year college students returning to the same school for their sophomore year, it is vital that we work to change our community's views about local two-year schools as an option.  Community colleges are not just a place where the students who cannot get into a better school end up.  Our school counseling team stresses the following reasons to consider a community college to all of our students and families:
  • It can cost a lot less.  Even if a student is four-year bound, the financial cost of attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year college is going to be significantly less than doing all four years at a traditional university, public or private.  For those families and students who are worried about future student loan debt (a very real concern right now) or about the strain of having to work full-time (as a student) or two or three jobs (as a parent) to be able to afford a four-year school, community college may be a strong choice at which to begin their college career.  Every year I have students with academic profiles that would gain acceptance to good four-year universities who choose to do community college for two years in order to save money on their education.
  • Some students are not yet ready to leave home.  Parents, for the most part, know their kids pretty well.  If you as a school counselor and they as a parent have worked just as hard to get a student through high school as the student themselves, then they may not yet be ready to leave home with all of that extra support and go away to a four-year school.  If this is a student who continuously gets into minor trouble (cheating, fights, excessive partying, smaller community issues) then they may not yet be ready for the freedom of life at college.  Some kids simply need another year or two of maturity and growing up in order to gain the skills necessary to manage both their academic and personal lives in a way that will give them a much stronger chance of success.  Better to go to community college for a few years than go away to school, spend $10,000, and then be kicked out at the end of the year for academic or social reasons.
  • Students need to build up their academic profile.  We all have those students who figure some things out closer to the end of their high-school career than at the beginning.  They have come to realize late that their grades and the classes they take really do matter.  Community college allows them to start with a clean slate and to build up their academic credentials so that after a year or two they can transfer into a four year school, having proven that they are ready to take on college-level coursework.
  • Four-year college is not for everyone, nor may it be necessary.  As mentioned before, there are many occupations for which a certificate or a two-year degree may be all that is required before a student can move into a good paying job or begin a career.  Not every student is going to be ready, at least at this time in their life, to do a Bachelor's degree.  However, they do need to get some kind of post-secondary training, whether it is in auto technology, cosmetology, computers and information technology, or dental assisting so that they are then ready to go out into the world with some marketable skills.  I always tell students and families that this doesn't mean that they will never get a four-year degree--it just may be that this is not the right time for them in their lives and they can always go back later.
  • Students have absolutely no idea what they want to do.  Part of what has always worried me about the six-year graduation statistics is that I fear that some of those students who may be on the seven or eight year plan began college with no earthly idea of what they wanted to study.  This is very normal--I would wager that most 18 year-olds are unsure of what they want to be when they grow up.  However, exploring a variety of fields is a lot less expensive at a community college than at a four-year school.  It is possible that these students need a year or two of career exploration (perhaps even via a gap year) to get some idea of what area(s) they may want to study so that when they do finally attend that four-year school they are able to be focused and complete a degree within four to six years.
  • Students had their heart set on attending a certain school but did not get in.  We have students and families that really only want to attend a certain favorite school, and perhaps do not get into that college during the admissions process.  Going to community college allows them a year or two to strengthen their academic credentials so that they can reapply and transfer in.
It is important to check to see what partnerships or programs are available from your local community college that could assist you in helping students and families to explore whether it it is a viable option for them.  For example, at NOVA there is a guaranteed admissions program which allows students, depending on their GPA, to graduate with an Associate of Arts or an Associate of Science degree and then be automatically admitted to the Virginia public school of their choice.  Further, we have the Pathways to the Baccalaureate program that supports students in their senior year of high school who are looking to go to NOVA for two years and then transfer to a four-year school.  The Pathways' counselor meets on a weekly basis with students in the program at their high-school, and then there is continued support for these students once they begin at NOVA.  If you do not have these partnerships at your school, it may be worth teaming up with your local school counselors, administrators, community members, and school district to try to develop some programming.

At my school, we have really come a long way in a few short years with taking away the stigma of community college as an option only for students who were unable to get into any other college.  This has taken a lot of effort on the part of the school counselors and our amazing career-center specialist, but I really feel we have turned the corner.  Now, many of our families see this as a strong option for their children for all of the reasons I've listed above, and it is viewed as it should be--a powerful stepping stone to a bright future of college and career.    

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