Opinion
Education Opinion

Don’t Forget the Community Colleges

By Anthony Cody — January 04, 2009 2 min read

When I graduated from high school in the mid 70s, a year early, I had the bare minimum of credits and a GPA just over 3. I went to work in the foundry industry and attended Laney College in Oakland off and on over the next seven years, before being admitted to UC Berkeley in 1982. I wasn’t ready for a UC education at age 17, but I graduated with honors in 1986.

This experience is part of the reason I have questioned the wisdom of gearing our high schools to focus on preparing all graduates for admission to top-level four year universities. This was in response to current proposals and policies that would mandate Algebra for all 8th grade students in California (now on hold due to an injunction) and require high school graduates to meet the University of California’s “A to G requirements.”

In my post a few weeks back, I raised the concern that if we make a high school diploma an all-or-nothing deal, with admission to a four-year university the only acceptable outcome, we risk increasing the number of students who will drop out, and ignore the many students who may find other pathways to success in their adult lives.

There is no doubt that in our future economy, some form of post-secondary education will be of increasing value. Community colleges helped me along my path, providing me with inexpensive, flexible and accessible classes that allowed me to transfer to a four-year institution. It turns out community colleges are a hugely overlooked resource, which provide a vital avenue to success for many people.

A draft white paper by PolicyLink on Federal Infrastructure Workforce Strategy recently reported that:

Seventy five percent of all African-American, Latino, and Native Americans that pursue a higher education degree start their journey in a community college. Offering more 175 degree and certificates in hundreds of vocation fields, in California, for example, the 109 colleges that make up the CCC are the largest provider of work training. Meanwhile, students who earn a degree or certificate from a California community college increase their earnings by 63%. Meanwhile, in state of Washington, which is realigning the state's basic skills education to integrate it with workforce training, found that students who complete at least one year of community college (that leads to a credential) can significantly improve their earning power. Conducted for the Ford Foundation by David Prince, The Tipping Point Study (2005), which tracked 35, 000 working age adult students who came to community college with high school education or less, or non-English-speaking, found that attainment of a one-year credential resulted in an "earnings bump" of: $7,000 more per year for ESL students, $8,500 more per year for an adult basic education student, and $2,700 and $1,700 more per year (respectively) for workforce students entering with a GED or high school diploma only.

Clearly it is to an individual students’ advantage to leave high school fully prepared to directly enter a four-year university, and we should remove any and all barriers to such an outcome. However not all our students are on that trajectory, and I do not believe we do them any favors by withholding their diplomas if they follow a different path.

I was permitted to graduate from high school even though I was not ready for a four-year university. Community colleges allowed me the freedom to learn as I was ready, grow up a bit, and when I eventually arrived at UC Berkeley, I was a hungry student ready to succeed. Let’s work to keep as many avenues open to our students as possible.

Was a community college part of your pathway? What role do community colleges play in your region? How do you think our high schools should best prepare students for their futures?

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