The Case For Community College

GeekMom
NCAS
NCAS Group, photo used with permission.

Students are lucky if they can get one truly influential professor in their lives. I’ve had countless. I hold close to my heart the professors who taught me way more than the subject at hand. I remember so vividly those moments when I knew my life was forever changed by what I had learned: when Jeff Baker talked about slippery slopes and I knew I would never again construct flawed arguments, when Gary Ogden talked about evolution and it resonated to the core of my being, when Ranford Hopkins made me realize that the first action against racism is to acknowledge it still exists.

What do these professors have in common? They were all community college professors. While I’ve had many very smart professors in my undergraduate and graduate programs at well-reputed universities, I’ve actually had more great professors in two years of community college than in the rest of my academic career combined. Community college professors are some of the most caring, passionate, and inspired bunch I’ve had the chance to meet and I am forever grateful my path led me through community college rather than a “better” big name school.

Community college had such a meaningful impact on who I am today that I am excited to see it is shedding the negative connotation often associated with it. A Sallie Mae study, How America Pays For College 2011, stated “high-income families increased enrollment in the lowest cost institutions, two-year public colleges, from 12 percent attending these types of colleges in academic year 2009-2010 to 22 percent in 2010-2011. This increase corresponds with a drop in enrollment in four-year public colleges, where 56 percent were enrolled in 2009-2010 compared with 48 percent in 2010-2011.”

NCAS
NCAS Students, photo used with permission.

Just as I was contemplating these things, I saw a NASA news release about the winners of the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. Here’s how the program works: From all the students who apply, NCAS makes an initial selection of students who will participate in an interactive web-based activities to design and plan a robotic mission to Mars. From the results of the activities, NCAS selects the final students who will work on a three-day project at NASA.

While at NASA, as described in the press release, the students will form teams that “will establish fictional companies pursuing Mars exploration. Each team will develop, design and build a prototype rover, then use their prototypes to navigate a course, collect rocks and water and return to a home base.”

Not only does this project sound really fun, turns out it’s also a well-kept secret. I chatted with NCAS representative Deborah Hutchings, a NASA Aerospace Scholars Education Specialist, about this great opportunity. In 2011, they received 230 applications, from which 92 students were selected for the final all-expenses-paid trip to NASA. I like those odds!

The program has been offered for 10 years in Texas, and three years nationally. I asked Deborah why NASA believes in pursuing community college students.

Almost half the students in higher education across the nation are community college students. These students often are not given the same opportunities that students at four-year schools have. This program encourages these students to maintain a relationship with NASA as they return to school and eventually transfer to a four-year school to complete a STEM degree. Our hope is that they will then return to NASA as either an intern, co-op or full time employee.

Deborah in turn connected me with an alumni from this program, Jennifer Hembd. A mom no less! Jennifer decided to attend community college to save money on core classes. She was able to take many classes online, which allowed her to do the school work in the evening after her kids went to bed and avoid the additional expense of day care. It was her Introduction to Digital Media professor who shared the NCAS program with the class. Jennifer applied, got selected, and had a great time at NASA!

It was by far one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Since I was very little I have always been fascinated with NASA but never thought I would ever be able to be a part of something so great. It was amazing to learn all that I did about both NASA and the future plans for missions to Mars by doing the written assignments for the program, and the onsite portion (my group went to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama) was fantastic! Not only was the program amazing, but I met some really great people from all over the country which I still speak with on a regular basis.

Curious to see if she loved community college as much as I did, I asked her how she thinks her community college experience rated against students who went to four-year colleges.

I am extremely happy that I started out at a community college. Being a nontraditional student, I feel it helped me to acclimate back into the academic process. Attending community college has opened up a plethora of opportunities to me and I have been fortunate enough to make some amazing faculty contacts, which I believe is much harder to do at larger schools.

Jennifer is now an intern at NASA, more specifically in the Information Resources Directorate at Johnson Space Center. There she work on the Shuttle Retirement Project where she archives all media aspects of the shuttle program and prepares to send that information to the National Archives.

If you are or know a community college student who would be interested in this program, applications for the next cycle are open until June 6th, 2012, so apply now!

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7 thoughts on “The Case For Community College

  1. Community college is also a fantastic opportunity for high school students. In California, high schoolers can take courses tuition-free. Some fees still apply, and you have to pay for books and lab fees, so it’s not completely free. But it’s a great way to set yourself apart during college admissions. My senior is taking organic chemistry at the local CC, and C++ and Solidworks (a CAD application) online from other California CCs. Makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of our high school district and gets him ready for the college environment.

    1. “What do these professors have in common? They were all community college professors. While I’ve had many very smart professors in my undergraduate and graduate programs at well-reputed universities, I’ve actually had more great professors in two years of community college than in the rest of my academic career combined. Community college professors are some of the most caring, passionate, and inspired bunch I’ve had the chance to meet and I am forever grateful my path led me through community college rather than a “better” big name school.”

      True Story 🙂

      Washington state also has a program where HS kids can attend a community college. My hubby got his GED and Associate degrees only a day apart, back in 1998.

    2. Both my sons have done the same thing. But since they’re homeschooled and not going through the public schools, they pay full price. Which is not cheap ($500+ for one English class).

      On the other hand, my oldest got three very nice letters of recommendation from his CC profs.

  2. Our local high schools have a tight connection with our community college. Certain classes, depending on the qualifications of the teacher, qualify also as college courses. For a 1 time $25 fee, you can enroll your child for the whole 4 years of high school. When they graduate from high school, they can start off with many college credits already under their belts! These courses include math/science and foreign languages, and many other mandatory type of college core courses.

  3. Rock on! Since I currently am a community college professor (and I LOVE my job), I have to totally agree that they offer so much more than people think. We also have the experience of an incredibly diverse student body, which I find to be amazing. Great to hear about this program. I’m probably going to a conference about community college education in Dallas next year, so I’ll watch for more about it.

    I just wish we could get more of our students to graduate/transfer. So many community college students start and never finish still.

  4. As somebody who felt the calling of education over that of individual scholarship, I appreciate your fair view and kind words. I know that many of my CC peers also show a passion and energy for working with their students, and would no doubt share my gratitude.

    @Kathy: I hear you; however, compare that to a private four year institution, and it’s not too shabby: my (residential) undergrad was about 1000% of that cost, before scholarships and the like – and that wasn’t even the priciest one around, even “back in the day” as it was!

  5. Community college is a great place for students to start, especially if they face anxiety or educational disabilities. The smaller classes and extra care are very influential and provide an atmosphere that allows for a lot of growth. Online colleges are another type of higher education that help those who may not be suited for the typical college experience.

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