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Community college before university deemed better

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04/30/2002 - Updated 10:13 PM ET
Why not a community college?

By Patrick Welsh

It's decision day for the seniors I teach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. They have until midnight to mail their deposits to the colleges they want to attend in the fall or risk losing their places.

Most of them got into several schools, and for some, the choice has been agonizing: the College of William and Mary or the University of Virginia? Boston College or Emory? When they ask me what school I think is the best, I tell them, "It's your choice. Whichever one you like the most."

There is one option that will be open to all of them right up to September: a year or two at nearby Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). But were I to suggest NOVA, most would be insulted. They view community colleges as places of last resort for the academically and socially challenged.

Although graduates from among the nation's more than 1,100 community colleges have gone on to four-year schools and become leaders in medicine, business and government (Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is a community college graduate), that attitude is pretty much universal.

Until I started teaching part-time at NOVA two years ago, I shared that view. But I've come to see that community colleges might not only be the wisest choice for many of my students who will be going off to four-year colleges, but that they also are essential to education in this country.

As fond as I am of the seniors I've been teaching this year, many of them, especially the boys, are not motivated enough to do the serious academic work that colleges are supposed to demand, let alone mature enough to resist the temptations of the boozy party life engrained in college culture. A recently released National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study reported that the party culture on campuses was more pervasive than most parents could imagine.

During college students' freshman and sophomore years, many parents pay tens of thousands of dollars not for a rigorous education, but for their kids to adjust to college culture. Incoming students are so unprepared for the responsibilities of college life that many institutions have to offer three-credit courses called "freshman seminars," a euphemism for a class in how to survive college. To accommodate the vast number of students not ready for college and to keep tuition coming in, professors sell out and inflate grades.

Kevin Kisska was typical of today's seniors. "Like most 18-year-old guys, I wanted to get out of the house and party, and college was the place to go," he says. "But for me, it was a dead end; I flunked out after a year and a half."

Now 23, Kisska is in my literature course at NOVA and doing top-notch work.

"It's all a matter of maturity," he says. "When I went to college out of high school, I had no focus. Now I know I want an education."

He notes that four friends who started at NOVA are now graduates of four-year colleges and are working, while most of his friends who went directly to universities are still there five or six years later.

Although I hear parents constantly complaining about the outrageous cost of higher education today, few take advantage of the fact that community colleges charge a fraction of the price of most four-year schools. A three-hour course at NOVA, for instance, costs about $130 as compared with $1,500 at many colleges.

Many parents have "the Wal-Mart syndrome," says NOVA English professor Jon Burton. "They feel that if they don't pay a lot, they can't possibly be getting a good education. Many of our students feel the same way; they enter NOVA with a lot of skepticism, but they leave with no regrets. ... They are happy they have been here and make an easy transition into the University of Virginia and other four-year colleges."

Conversely, the high tuition demanded at many four-year colleges is anything but a guarantee of a good education for even the most serious students. I keep hearing from former students at expensive schools about classes of 300 or more, with graduate students responsible for most of the teaching. One student, whose dad pays $35,000 for her to be at an Ivy League school, told me that professors stand before huge classes reading the same notes they have posted on their Web sites. At NOVA, most full-time professors teach 15 hours a week. The classes average 22 to 24 students.

One of the biggest benefits a community college can offer a kid straight out of high school is the mix of ages in the classroom. Every NOVA class I've taught had students ranging from age 18 to 50-plus. One of the major impediments to changing the party culture on college campuses is the fact that, as Paul Steinberg, associate director of counseling and psychiatric services at Georgetown University, wrote in The Washington Post, "colleges are essentially single-age societies, with 20-year-olds supervising the behavior of 18-year-olds."

This is not the case at NOVA, where the average age is 29. The fact that the tone at community colleges is set by older students may be the main reason, according to the recent NIAAA study, there is far less drinking among students at two-year colleges than among those at four-year institutions.

The older students are there because they want to finally get a degree. Most of them work and have families. Their seriousness about schoolwork filters over to the younger members of the class.

Now whenever my seniors joke about peers "only going to NOVA," I tell them that the community college is full of students who would leave them in the academic dust.

It's not just older students, but kids their own age such as Lissy March, who was in my night-school class last semester. When she graduated from high school last June, March didn't feel she was ready to leave home for college, so she followed her instincts, stayed home, worked and took 30 hours at the community college.

"NOVA was the perfect place for me," says March, who will transfer to the University of San Francisco on a full scholarship come September. "I was surprised how challenging it was and how much I learned. ... It made me feel confident about moving on."

Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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