Education Letter to the Editor

Are Community Colleges Like Towns? Not Really.

April 05, 2005 2 min read
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To the Editor:

Clifford Adelman, in his latest treatise on the American community college (“Community Colleges Are Serving More Younger Adults, Report Says,” March 16, 2005.) views the community college as a “town.” The irony of this label, seemingly missed by Mr. Adelman, is that the community college is rarely a place where a student takes up residence. In fact, the lack of residential facilities at community colleges, which helps keep the cost of attendance low, may well contribute to lower rates of student social integration and higher rates of attrition.

Moreover, in the parlance of communities, the most desirable social position is that of the homeowner, and one accepts tenancy only when it is not financially possible to own. Yet, according to Mr. Adelman’s analysis, “tenants” (who accumulate most of their credits outside of the community college) are more successful than “homeowners” (who earn credits primarily at the community college). This disjuncture between typology and reality should have been reason enough for Mr. Adelman to discard the typology.

But of far greater concern are the implications of Mr. Adelman’s categorizations. For example, “temporary transfers” from four-year institutions and “incidental” students who earn 10 or fewer credits at the community college are merely “visitors” in his categorization—despite the fact that they represent 45 percent of students in his sample. These students, often facing multiple challenges to their continued presence in school, are said to demonstrate very little commitment to the college, and thus ought not be included in the college population when calculating transfer rates. But it is easy to imagine “visitors” who accumulate few credits, not for a lack of commitment, but for a lack of resources and/or time.

By setting aside these students, we run the risk of marginalizing almost one out of every two students that community colleges currently strive to serve, and of dividing up our campuses into those we can help to transfer, and those we ought not concern ourselves with.

Community colleges represent the most accessible, affordable opportunity for postsecondary education for many minority and low-income adults, and in many wonderful ways operate as “second chance” institutions. Let’s hope that when disadvantaged students finally reach the campus doors and struggle to gain their footing by enrolling in courses, they are not treated as visitors. We must not let new accountability standards drive us to find ways to eliminate from our transfer programs students less likely to be successful. No one is a “resident” at a community college, but all are members of the community.

Sara Youcha Rab

Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology

School of Education

James Benson

Graduate Student

Department of Sociology

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Madison, Wis.


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