The New Education

So, I used to teach at a community college, and I may go back for a few classes. Maybe, if there is a class to teach.

The significant thing is, that I was there for about forty years as an employee and maybe another three years as a student. That’s a lot of years in one place.

One would think that I might have learned a few things about the community college system, besides the fact that I am a product of the system. And actually, I have learned a few things, many of them are wonderful and a few are heartbreakingly awful.

First, the wonderful. Are you kidding? A great education for cheap!! When I first started it was free, except for the books. The classes were small and the instructor was very approachable. It was heaven.

Okay, today is a bit different, the cost per unit is quite a bit higher, but still remarkably low compared to other higher education schools, and way higher than most community colleges in other states. Clearly the best use of your educational dollar in the country.

The programs are still mostly of the highest quality. I’m not going to say that everything is the best, but even the worst is better than average. And there are nationally recognized programs that rank very high, even among the best four year schools.

Community colleges were first known to be the place where the community could get vocational training necessary in the areas that the community found important. Professionals advised the college via Advisory Committees in exactly the right curriculum. It was/is the perfect system for relevant education.

In addition, community colleges could start the first two years of a transfer degree at a four year institution by use of articulation agreements. And mostly that worked as well, with thousands of students being successful, generally earning better grades after transferring, and saving thousands of dollars in tuition and other costs.

Lastly there were the lifelong learning opportunities. Classes that were designed to be challenging but only in content, not necessarily the grade or testing results. The community came back in droves to learn about music, art and drama. After paying taxes for years, sending their children to college, it was time for them. It was time to learn and stretch their talents in new directions.

This was the semi-perfect system that I signed up for forty years ago. Unfortunately it is under attack today and may never be the same within years, if not months.

So why the attack? Unfortunately the main issue is money. Local control and local funds are no longer the truth. 80% or more of the funding comes from state or federal sources with lots of strings attached.

Complaining to the decision makers can only cause handwringing and sad expressions. But I have to say there is a new generation of decision makers that don’t remember what it was like, and have sort of bought in to the “new realities”. Much less handwringing now, and more, “Hey, it’s all about numbers, and that’s only fair”. It sounds fair but it isn’t.

One of the most distressing trends is the change in our language. Words are used in such a way that just about anything can be justified. And who is there to stand up for clarity?

I remember when I was so new that I didn’t have a clue to what was going on. Then there was about ten years where I was effective and my opinions were sought and sometimes acted upon. And increasingly the last few years…well, a little bit of “tried that and it didn’t work” gets old and tiresome. My own fault.

So now several generations of staff have retired and that which was, has been lost. And like the state legislature, we get what we deserve.

Except that this college was never about us, the staff, the faculty, the administrators. It was always about the students and the community. They do deserve better. They deserve educators who are flexible, who contract when necessary, but remember where they have been and restore what is needed in order to serve effectively.

Giving in to the “new realities” is tossing our history in the dust-bin.

Small individual classes that provided breadth, and interest, and educational excitement, are now labeled “standalone”, that sounds fair to eliminate. Who wants to support a course with that judgement laid upon it. “Arrogant ‘standalones’, being anti-collegial over there.” Even department chairs bought into the axing.

Community service classes were in the official mission statement. Not a problem, just change the mission statement. Well, that didn’t work, but they could cut every class offered, only allowing the fee-based to be offered. That sounded fair, completely ignoring forty years of history. And fee-based is the same as noncredit. Right?

Wrong. But there is no one left who understands the difference, and you can’t fight city hall anyway.

Forcing every program into certificates or transfer status sounds like a good thing. But only because the state likes it, not because of sound educational planning. Some things are important even if they don’t fit certificate or transfer.

Forcing every student to file an educational plan sounds fair, but is a very chilling effect on many students. Again, the state requires it, so it must be okay.

Now I must get personal. I can remember being thrilled to be at a college where a small journalism department was nationally respected. There were literally a dozen programs that were unique, small, and widely honored. And I didn’t take courses in any of them, but I knew about them and I bathed in the reflective glory.

As it turns out, years later I became a faculty member in the journalism department. And it was still true. It was small, yet hundreds of students were trained to think, to write, and to be leaders in their communities. And I continued to bathe.

So now, because of “new realities”, the journalism department is under study. Not for the reasons of quality, like “How do they win national awards year after year?”, but instead, the question is why isn’t journalism a cash cow with tons of money coming from the state.

My own Graphic Design program was one of first to be cut in this current round of contractions. Oh, I remember that the college had cut keypunch, and welding, and non-destructive testing. Programs that had industries phasing out, or moving away from the community. But Graphic Design was just small, a consistent 17 students, but still too small, so it went away.

I’m sad about the important, small departments that will disappear in the coming years, but maybe what saddens me most is that if the current college state was in place forty-five years ago, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen through the cracks and not attended.

Now some may say that it wouldn’t matter because I was drafted during Vietnam before I could graduate. Well, when I came out of the service and came back to the school, I don’t think I would have been accepted then either, I only wanted a few specialized classes that probably would have been “standalones”. And I already had lots of units from years before. Okay, maybe the veteran thing would help, but maybe not. I would not have would have been told to move up the educational food chain and transfer, because transfer is now the goal.

I would not have gotten the best education available, I would not have been hired as a student, I would have not been hired as a temporary hourly, I would have not started a career of classified service, I would have not started to teach part-time, I would have not been hired as full-time faculty, I would have not impacted thousands of students and staff, I would have not met my wife, I would have not had my son and daughters.

I would have other jobs, another college, and another family, so some say it doesn’t matter.

Well, it matters to me!

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