Education Opinion

Prestige or Purpose?

By Susan Graham — August 04, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week I wrote about the Dirty Little Business of cutting school costs by cutting career and technical education.

Claus von Zastrow, over at Public School Insights, asked

….Is there cause for concern when attendance at 4-year colleges continues to be bound by SES (socioeconomic status)?

Well, that depends……

All across our country, we are telling young people that a degree from a four year college is a ticket to a bright future. But going to college doesn’t guarantee success. And in fact, graduating from college doesn’t insure anything either. Ask the boomerang young adult who has moved home to the basement and is waiting tables while waiting for life to start up.

It seems to me that, with the best of intentions, the message of college has drifted off course. With slick college brochures featuring beautiful campuses, luxurious amenities and exciting extracurricular and enrichment opportunities, our colleges sometimes seem to have more in common with the resort industry than an aesthetic life of intellectual pursuit. College has become a prestige destination as much as an opportunity to prepare for a career and adult life.

If we accept a four year degree as the only path to success, then we have an obligation to make a four year degree available to all. But there is reason to believe we’ve made a false assumption that the experience inside the ivy covered walls of academia is the only real choice. That may have more to do with good marketing than with reality. Some of our universities risk being “designer handbags” of higher learning. While few dispute their quality, their value may have as much to do with their exclusivity as their effectiveness. Degrees from elite institutions, just like some handbags, may be worth every penny, but they are a luxury that not everyone can afford. Second tier privates and state universities are more accessible and more affordable choices, but with post secondary costs escalating at more than 5% per annum, they are increasingly beyond the reach of many, even with grants and loans.

For the careful education consumer, community colleges can often offer quality education at bargain basement prices. At a community college, a freshman is less likely to be taught by a graduate student and more likely to be in a smaller class. Because of their size and mission, community colleges provide more personal support for students who may be first generation college students. Community colleges tend to be more friendly to part time enrollment and the need to balance work and school schedules. Students have the option of certificate programs, associate degrees, transfer to four year colleges, or combinations of these.

The education sector has often ignored the opportunities that community colleges offer. High schools partner with community colleges for dual enrollment programs that allow college prep or career and technical students to earn college credit while still in high school. Unlike AP courses, these classes fall under the direct supervision of a state accredited institute of higher learning. Four year universities usually allow community college students to carry their credits with them if they decide to pursue an undergraduate degree. Careful planning and articulated agreements insure that coursework will apply to a degree plan.

But community colleges offer other options as well. A student who begins a licensed nursing assistant program in high school has a headstart on earning a practical nursing certificate in less than a year. A two year associates program can result in licensure as a registered nurse. These registered nurses are half way home to a BS in nursing and eligibility for advanced degrees that lead to careers such as nurse managers and nurse anesthetists. Community college doesn’t have to be a limited or last-resort option; instead it may be the best place to find multiple paths to success.

Claus questioned

Aren't some excellent CTE programs also essentially college prep programs?

Research atColumbia University, indicates that the combination of CTE and dual enrollment improves the probability of success in a four year degree program. Unfortunately, students are often discouraged from enrollment in CTE courses because it “might not look good on your college application.” It is equally unfortunate when community colleges are presented as last-ditch choices rather than viable options.

The prestige of colleges and universities is a two-edged sword. We call them highly selective schools. Highly selective is just a nice way of saying exclusive, and you can’t be exclusive without limiting access, and limited access boils down to “We’re in and you’re not.” The danger of limited access is that college acceptance may become as much about seeking status as pursuing knowledge. When a “name brand” becomes as valuable as the content of what is learned, a university may struggle to separate academic excellence from empire building. Career and Technical education and community college programs may lack prestige, but they are purpose-driven and are likely to remain student focused.

My TLN colleague Renee Moore points out

Community colleges have proven themselves resilient and resourceful in providing access to education for broader and broader segments of our population, and the high-profile push from the Administration may begin to change not only the perception of community college, but its under-resourced reality.

I certainly hope so.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.