USA TODAY article on community colleges
- Why not a community college?
By Patrick Welsh
It's decision day for the seniors I teach at T.C. Williams High School in
Alexandria, Va. They have until midnight to mail their deposits to the
colleges they want to attend in the fall or risk losing their places.
Most of them got into several schools, and for some, the choice has been
agonizing: the College of William and Mary or the University of Virginia?
Boston College or Emory? When they ask me what school I think is the best, I
tell them, "It's your choice. Whichever one you like the most."
There is one option that will be open to all of them right up to September:
a year or two at nearby Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). But were
I to suggest NOVA, most would be insulted. They view community colleges as
places of last resort for the academically and socially challenged.
Although graduates from among the nation's more than 1,100 community
colleges have gone on to four-year schools and become leaders in medicine,
business and government (Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is a community
college graduate), that attitude is pretty much universal.
Until I started teaching part-time at NOVA two years ago, I shared that
view. But I've come to see that community colleges might not only be the
wisest choice for many of my students who will be going off to four-year
colleges, but that they also are essential to education in this country.
As fond as I am of the seniors I've been teaching this year, many of them,
especially the boys, are not motivated enough to do the serious academic
work that colleges are supposed to demand, let alone mature enough to resist
the temptations of the boozy party life engrained in college culture. A
recently released National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
study reported that the party culture on campuses was more pervasive than
most parents could imagine.
During college students' freshman and sophomore years, many parents pay tens
of thousands of dollars not for a rigorous education, but for their kids to
adjust to college culture. Incoming students are so unprepared for the
responsibilities of college life that many institutions have to offer
three-credit courses called "freshman seminars," a euphemism for a class in
how to survive college. To accommodate the vast number of students not ready
for college and to keep tuition coming in, professors sell out and inflate
Kevin Kisska was typical of today's seniors. "Like most 18-year-old guys, I
wanted to get out of the house and party, and college was the place to go,"
he says. "But for me, it was a dead end; I flunked out after a year and a
Now 23, Kisska is in my literature course at NOVA and doing top-notch work.
"It's all a matter of maturity," he says. "When I went to college out of
high school, I had no focus. Now I know I want an education."
He notes that four friends who started at NOVA are now graduates of
four-year colleges and are working, while most of his friends who went
directly to universities are still there five or six years later.
Although I hear parents constantly complaining about the outrageous cost of
higher education today, few take advantage of the fact that community
colleges charge a fraction of the price of most four-year schools. A
three-hour course at NOVA, for instance, costs about $130 as compared with
$1,500 at many colleges.
Many parents have "the Wal-Mart syndrome," says NOVA English professor Jon
Burton. "They feel that if they don't pay a lot, they can't possibly be
getting a good education. Many of our students feel the same way; they enter
NOVA with a lot of skepticism, but they leave with no regrets. ... They are
happy they have been here and make an easy transition into the University of
Virginia and other four-year colleges."
Conversely, the high tuition demanded at many four-year colleges is anything
but a guarantee of a good education for even the most serious students. I
keep hearing from former students at expensive schools about classes of 300
or more, with graduate students responsible for most of the teaching. One
student, whose dad pays $35,000 for her to be at an Ivy League school, told
me that professors stand before huge classes reading the same notes they
have posted on their Web sites. At NOVA, most full-time professors teach 15
hours a week. The classes average 22 to 24 students.
One of the biggest benefits a community college can offer a kid straight out
of high school is the mix of ages in the classroom. Every NOVA class I've
taught had students ranging from age 18 to 50-plus. One of the major
impediments to changing the party culture on college campuses is the fact
that, as Paul Steinberg, associate director of counseling and psychiatric
services at Georgetown University, wrote in The Washington Post, "colleges
are essentially single-age societies, with 20-year-olds supervising the
behavior of 18-year-olds."
This is not the case at NOVA, where the average age is 29. The fact that the
tone at community colleges is set by older students may be the main reason,
according to the recent NIAAA study, there is far less drinking among
students at two-year colleges than among those at four-year institutions.
The older students are there because they want to finally get a degree. Most
of them work and have families. Their seriousness about schoolwork filters
over to the younger members of the class.
Now whenever my seniors joke about peers "only going to NOVA," I tell them
that the community college is full of students who would leave them in the
It's not just older students, but kids their own age - such as Lissy March,
who was in my night-school class last semester. When she graduated from high
school last June, March didn't feel she was ready to leave home for college,
so she followed her instincts, stayed home, worked and took 30 hours at the
"NOVA was the perfect place for me," says March, who will transfer to the
University of San Francisco on a full scholarship come September. "I was
surprised how challenging it was and how much I learned. ... It made me feel
confident about moving on."
Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in
Alexandria, Va., and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.