Rescinding the Community-College Mandate

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I am sure that there are good arguments for taking such action, both financial and academic. Community colleges, like everybody else, have to be able to pay their bills. In a time of declining tax support, that is becoming harder and harder to do. Also, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect at least 8th-grade ability from someone who wants to do college work. Yet, I am not convinced. I think that there must be other areas for economies, and prior academic achievement doesn't necessarily tell the whole story; but I have not always believed this.

Until 1969, I was an aerospace engineer. Most of us remember that 1969-70 saw the completion of the lunar-landing program, the cutbacks at nasa, and the resulting collapse of the aerospace industry (the nation, in its wisdom, elected to intensify the war in Vietnam rather than pursue the exploration of space). Like many others, I found myself out of work and with no prospects. Fortunately, my wife was able to return to teaching in our local public-school system. I then talked to the school's personnel director, who said that he had openings for high-school mathematics teachers and that I would be qualified if I could get a teaching certificate. Since that was the only offer I had, back to the university I went.

One of the better education courses I was required to take was called "Philosophy of Education," and one of the class assignments was to review a magazine article on open-admissions policies at the City University of New York.

Each student in my class was asked to write a paper on "Who Should Go to College?" and to offer adequate justification for whatever position he or she took.

Since all I had was an engineer's typically conservative point of view, I was ready to come down hard on the side of limited enrollment, academic standards, and college for the intellectually elite. However, I had to admit that I only had tradition and personal prejudice to justify my position. Knowing that the professor would insist on something better, I tried to develop an engineering sort of answer; that is, a logical analysis or test to establish an objective set of criteria for "Who Should Go to College" (and who should not).

I decided that there were three characteristics of a successful college student: intellectual ability, academic preparation, and genuine desire. I further decided that each characteristic had a threshold level above which success could be a reasonable expectation and below which it could not. In essence, an individual was smart enough or was not, had learned enough in high school or had not, and wanted to go to college badly enough or did not. Notice that I wasn't concerned with how high those levels were, or how to measure them, merely that, theoretically, they existed. Now, an individual who met all three of these minimum characteristics should probably go to college. Somebody who failed all three probably should not.

The important questions, I thought, were about the people in between. Should a person who had perhaps two of the characteristics, but not the third, go to college? If so, which two? How about the person who had just one?

To answer these questions I made up a set of cards with the three characteristics in a column down the side and the words "yes" and "no'' across the top. By putting a check in either column for each characteristic, I filled out a card for every possible combination of characteristics (there are eight).

After that, I turned the cards face down and mixed them up. I then drew each card, one at a time, and reviewed the "personality profile" that it represented. Trying hard not to force the outcome, I put each card either on the pile of those I thought should go to college, or on the pile of those who shouldn't. In each instance, I tried to decide which potential students would profit from the experience and which would be wasting the college's and their own time.

When I was finished, I looked at my two piles and the result was one of those genuine revelations that comes to each of us once in a while. To my own surprise, I had separated my candidates neither by intellectual ability nor by academic preparation, but by genuine desire. I discovered what I really believed: If people really want to go on in school, ways should be found for them to do so. If they have inadequate preparation, there should be remedial programs. If they are not intellectually equal to traditional college work, alternate programs should be established.

I noticed also that I had unconsciously broadened my definition of college to any legitimate educational program beyond high school. That is: four-year colleges, two-year colleges, apprentice programs, trade schools, co-op programs, or any others.

I arrived at the basic conclusion that if a person genuinely wants to continue his or her education, it is in society's interest to provide the opportunity.

Our goal should be to develop as many appropriate programs for as many different individuals as possible. Our society best serves itself by serving the needs and aspirations of all its citizens.

My approach may be a simplistic one, probably with no practical application in the real world. Its main value is as a guide for thought. Others may come to a different conclusion. Nevertheless, to provide alternatives to, and further preparation for, the traditional four-year programs are precisely why the community colleges were organized in the first place. I regret to see them proposing to retreat from this mandate.

Vol. 02, Issue 11, Page 18

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