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Jay Mathews, a Washington Post staff writer, recently confessed, “Despite all I have written about college admissions, college lessons and college life, there is one higher education topic I almost never touch. That is community colleges.” He said the reason he doesn’t cover community college is that “My editors and I know that the students and parents most likely to read the Washington Post are the least likely to want anything to do with community colleges. They share the middle class dream of getting into four year schools, and don’t think much about the hard work being done in community colleges to move low-income and immigrant Americans into that middle class.”

The Post isn’t alone in its misunderstanding of community colleges. A recent episode of NBC’s prime time show, West Wing, alluded to the fact that parents don’t want to be told that their children have to go to the community college instead of a university. Burger King pulled a commercial spot a couple of years ago that disparaged community college students after a universal outcry about creating stereotypes. We’ve been very fortunate in Peoria. Our local media covers Illinois Central College during both our ups and our downs. They see us as a vital part of our community. But while we enjoy local interest, community colleges as a whole usually aren’t even on the radar of the national agenda.

Jay Mathews was writing his column because an interesting research study had crossed his desk. Written by Clifford Adelman of the U.S. Department of Education, the report offered portraits of community college students through interview transcripts. Adelman’s report contains myriad information about community colleges in the United States. For example, on the eastern seaboard, about 20 percent of all high school students entering college go to community colleges, and 60 percent do so on the Pacific coast. In our own district, that number is about 35 percent. Students who’re mathematically challenged tend to enroll in community colleges rather than four-year schools. Contrary to popular myth, race, gender, and first-time family attendance of college doesn’t determine whether a student will attend a community college or a four-year school. But economic status does. Students in poorer families are more likely to attend the community college. This makes sense since community college tuition is often a fraction that of four-year schools.

But community colleges don’t just serve the needs of new high school graduates. Four-year students often transfer in and out of community colleges, earning credits for courses they can’t get into at their four-year schools, taking classes in general education subjects where the classroom size is much smaller than at many four-year schools, and saving money on coursework. Some four-year students fail to thrive at the university and return to the community college for a fresh start.

Community college degrees—not just credits—also made a difference. Adelman reported that 79 percent of those who’d earned their Associates degree gained full-time employment, while only 58 percent who’d earned 60 credits but no degree were employed. Most associate degrees require about 60 credit hours of coursework. The fact that the degreed students were more successful in gaining employment speaks to the importance of completion. The study cited the community college system’s “strong suits” as protective services, business support, computer-related, and medical licensure and supporting occupations.

Finally, an interesting observation Adelman made about community colleges was the effect it has on student aspirations. His study found 19 percent of the high school seniors who entered the community college system raised their educational aspiration to a Bachelors degree after two years of experience in the community college system. This means one out of five students found out they could do more. This finding, in and of itself, speaks to the mission of all community colleges. That mission is to unleash the full potential of every student, in spite of the fact that they may at first not recognize it. That’s what community colleges are all about. IBI

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