Personally, I wasn't as offended as some of my colleagues by Peter Onear's recent column, "An Enlightening Trip to the Countryside," in which he described in smug terms his visit to a suburban community college not far from his own urban four-year campus.
Like so many who have spent their careers in the academic backwater of CommunityCollegeville, I live for the occasional pat on the head. If I'm ever fortunate enough to meet Mr. "Onear," I plan on asking for his autograph, and maybe a bedtime story.
Sarcasm aside, I do recognize that Onear, a government-relations officer at a large university, probably meant well. No doubt, from his admittedly comfortable perch atop the academic food chain, he felt he was being complimentary, even magnanimous, when he alluded to the "attractive campus" of the two-year college he visited, and insisted that those of us who toil in such places are "doing God's work."
Unfortunately, Onear's condescending tone and constant reliance on stereotypes lead me to conclude that his trip wasn't nearly enlightening enough.
Or at least it wasn't for him. For those of us actually engaged in "God's work," his column ought to be very enlightening indeed, as it reminds us we still have much to do in fighting false perceptions about community colleges.
Where to begin cataloging Onear's ill-informed statements, biased assumptions, and patronizing prattle?
Let's start with the obvious: One need not be a social scientist to realize his conclusions are fundamentally flawed, based as they are on a sample of one. Because Onear never mentions any other such road trips -- indeed, he sounds for much of the essay as if he's never seen a two-year campus before -- his perceptions of community colleges in general appear to arise from a single encounter.
For example, he tells us after touring the institution in question that "community college campuses aren't happy-go-lucky places," and declares that there's a "certain grimness" about them.
Grimness? Really? What exactly does he mean by that? That students aren't throwing Frisbees on the lawn between classes? That they're not whooping it up on fraternity row after an all-night kegger? That they're not tearing down the goal posts when the football team wins a big game?
Speaking as someone who has worked at five two-year colleges and visited dozens more, I can honestly say that the word "grim" has never entered my mind in connection with any of them. It may be true, as Onear says, that "students at two-year colleges are serious and purposeful" -- although not all of them, and not all of the time -- but it's certainly not true that, in general, they "have neither the time nor desire to hang out at the student union."
In my 21 years of teaching at two-year colleges, I've seen lots of my students "hanging out" in the student center, not to mention throwing Frisbees on the lawn. I might even characterize a few of them as borderline happy-go-lucky.
Onear's observations regarding relative institutional size are also rather misleading. By describing his visit to one institution with "about 5000 full- and part-time students," he might leave some readers with the impression that all community colleges tend to operate on a smaller scale than universities. He notes that "it's easier for an institution to handle 5,000 students than 25,000 . . . [and] to work with a few dozen faculty members than a few hundred." While there are certainly many two-year colleges with 5,000 or fewer students (just as there are many four-year institutions in that range), some are actually a bit larger than his own cherished university.
In fact, according to the Digest of Education Statistics, of the 120 largest degree-granting institutions in the country, 24 are two-year colleges. Miami-Dade College is the second-largest institution of any type, with more than 57,000 students. The Houston Community College system serves nearly 40,000. Nine others have 30,000 or more.
And I'm guessing each of them employs more than a few dozen faculty members.
Onear's most startling assertion, by far, is "that most students at community colleges are enrolled there only because (1) their parents and/or spouses are insisting on it; (2) they are unemployed or minimally employed and desperately need some education; or (3) their bosses are making them take classes to stay employed."
In other words, no one in his or her right mind would attend a community college unless he or she positively had to.
Wow. If that were even close to being true, two-year colleges would indeed be pretty grim places. Fortunately, it's not, and they're not.
The truth is, the typical community-college campus these days looks, demographically, a lot like the typical four-year campus. Certainly, we serve a fair number of "disadvantaged students who don't have much money," along with many students who are academically underprepared, and a healthy dose of adult students returning to school. We do so proudly. (It is God's work, after all.)
However, according to statistics compiled by the American Association of Community Colleges, the average age of two-year students has been trending sharply downward in recent years, meaning that we are now enrolling many of the students who used to end up at midsize state universities -- or even, in some cases, the big research institutions.
That's partly because of money, as Onear suggests. But really it's more about value, which is to say the intersection between cost and quality. What people like Onear fail to recognize is that, these days, lots of students go to community colleges because they've figured out they can get a high-quality education there -- in smaller classes, taught by actual professors instead of graduate students -- for a fraction of the cost. They've also learned that they can transfer to four-year institutions, if that's what they want to do, and be very competitive.
In other words, community colleges are no longer just for students who can't go anywhere else, if indeed we ever were. We've become a major portal for all kinds of students to enter higher education. And all kinds of students are doing so in record numbers: Nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates attend two-year colleges, according to the community-colleges' association.
That, of course, is a message we have been trying to convey for years, and one that finally appears (from my vantage point, at least) to be taking hold.
But you would never know that from reading Onear, who seems content with recycling the tired stereotypes of decades past. I understand that in doing so he doesn't intend to demean community colleges, or those who attend them, or those who work there, but -- well, you know what they say about good intentions.
Try not to hold it against him, though. Instead, just think of him as unenlightened.
Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.