• November 26, 2014

Know Thy Students

"Know thyself," Socrates famously advised, while Sun Tzu counseled prospective warriors, "Know thine enemy." To those legendary admonitions, I would add this one, aimed at anyone beginning or considering a career in two-year college teaching: "Know thy students."

So just who are community-college students, anyway? I decided to play amateur sociologist and explore that question by touring the parking lot at my large suburban two-year campus. The results, at first, were a bit surprising.

From the automobile sample I examined -- in which, by the way, 10-year-old Hondas and Toyotas were disproportionately represented -- I determined that our students tend to come from the lower half of the economic spectrum, that they lean to the left politically (judging by the bumper stickers), and that many of them are struggling to raise young families (car seats were visible in approximately a third of the vehicles).

Then I realized I was in the faculty parking lot.

The student lot, however, was even more eye-opening: Everything from Lexus SUV's to rusted and sagging sedans of indeterminate age and origin, from pick-up trucks to hybrids. Bumper stickers ranged from "Choose Life" to "War Is Not the Answer." (Not that those are necessarily mutually exclusive sentiments.) And yes, a goodly number of car seats were in evidence.

All of which told me exactly what I already knew: Two-year college students are such a marvelously diverse group, they can hardly be called a "group" at all. Demographers may tell us that the typical community-college student is a 27-year-old woman with 2.5 kids, but beyond that rather meaningless statistical analysis, there really is no "typical" community-college student.

That's because two-year colleges are the most egalitarian of postsecondary institutions. Almost anybody can attend a community college, and almost anybody does.

Still, there is much that two-year-college instructors and aspiring instructors can learn about the people who will inhabit their classrooms -- some of it expected, some not. In fact, the truth about community-college students often flies in the face of long-established stereotypes.

For example, it's an article of faith in certain academic circles that students who gravitate toward two-year colleges couldn't hack it at a "real college." Like most misconceptions, that belief is based on an element of truth. It's certainly true that our students, on average, have lower SAT and ACT scores than their counterparts at four-year institutions. The fact that so many two-year colleges have "open door" policies -- meaning that they admit anyone with a high-school diploma or GED -- virtually guarantees that disparity.

Another predictable result of open-door policies is that many new students at community colleges are not prepared for college-level work. In fact, at a typical two-year college, 30 to 40 per cent of first-year students enroll in precollegiate courses (also known as "remedial" or "developmental" courses), based on standardized placement test scores.

None of that should be terribly surprising, given that the mission of the community college is basically to provide access to higher education for those who might not otherwise have it. If you teach at a community college, you can reasonably expect to have students in your classes who struggle to read, write, and compute at a college level. And if your discipline is English or math, you may even be called upon to teach developmental courses. (And maybe you'll discover that you enjoy it, although that's a topic for another column.)

But what I've found surprising, during my 18-year teaching career in the community-college arena, is not how many of my students aren't well prepared for college, but how many of them are. One of the best-kept secrets in higher education today is the proliferation of honors programs at two-year colleges.

Those programs are designed to accommodate students whose SAT scores would allow them to get into "prestigious" colleges, but who find themselves at a community college for any number of personal reasons. Classes in those honors programs tend to be smaller, the curriculum more in-depth, and the instruction more focused on class discussion and collaboration than most courses. The purpose isn't so much to "improve" the student body by attracting "better" students -- community colleges don't tend to think that way -- but rather to better serve all students: the academically gifted as well as the underprepared.

(It's worth noting that few if any two-year colleges offer enough honors courses to satisfy all of a student's core requirements, meaning that such students take many of their classes with the general student population. In other words, they will be sitting in your classroom, right alongside students fresh from remediation. Therein lies the challenge of community-college teaching.)

In addition to students who place into developmental and honors programs, community colleges have plenty of just plain ordinary students -- those who might not have been able to get into the state's flagship university but who certainly would have been admitted to a small regional college.

For many of those students, the local community college is an attractive alternative, because of its low cost, proximity to home, or popular programs. Tuition is often two-thirds or even half what students would pay at a four-year college. And they can usually cut expenses even further by living at home. Because most two-year colleges are part of state systems that allow easy transfer of credits among institutions, students can stay close to home for an extra year or two, take the core courses they need while they figure out what they want to study, then transfer to a four-year institution when they're ready.

That is, if they transfer. A large number of students on a typical community-college campus have no intention of transferring to a four-year campus. They are attending a community college for one of its popular two-year degree programs, such as nursing or information technology.

Here again, the notion that those students must not be as intellectually gifted as their transfer-oriented peers is simply, in most cases, mistaken. Nursing students, in particular, tend to be among the most intelligent and driven students on the campus, because nursing programs at most two-year colleges are highly selective.

Another misconception about community-college students is that they're primarily "returning" students -- i.e., older. While it's certainly true that the average age at a typical two-year college is significantly higher than at most four-year institutions -- around 28 at my institution, for instance -- we also serve our fair share of "traditional age" students, meaning 18- and 19-year-olds.

The truth is, students of traditional college age make up a large and growing segment of the two-year student population. As Clifford Adelman recently discovered in his landmark study "Moving into Town -- and Moving On: the Community College in the Lives of Traditional Age Students," 42 per cent of community-college students are now under the age of 22 -- an increase of 10 percentage points in the last decade. That statistic doesn't mean your students will be any better or any worse, just that they might be a little different from what you've been led to expect.

And that's my point. Community-college students are young and old, male and female, rich and poor, black and white (and Asian and Hispanic and Native American). They're gifted and needy, Republican and Democrat, urban and rural.

Perhaps as a graduate student you envisioned yourself imparting knowledge to the best and brightest at one of the nation's elite institutions. Now you're teaching at a community college, or contemplating doing so. Some might see that as "settling," but you don't have to look at it that way. You can still impart knowledge to the best and brightest -- along with the disadvantaged, the statistically average, and the woefully underprepared.

Even better, as you immerse yourself in the richness and diversity that characterize the community-college classroom, you will discover that your students also impart knowledge to you: knowledge about a wide range of economic situations, family circumstances, and cultural backgrounds. And along the way, you may even learn something important about yourself: that you enjoy being here, in this job, with these students.

Socrates would be proud.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.

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