Less-expensive colleges can be rewarding

The thought of attending a community colleges can be given short shrift by those parents who threaten their children with ending up there if they do not keep their grades up in high school.

From my own perspective, community colleges measure up and can provide the same education as an elite institution. Lawrence Cremin, president of Columbia University Teachers College, where I earned my doctorate, never forgot his roots at City College of New York in Harlem. He was eager to avoid making judgments based on where a person went to school: it was what they did with their education that mattered.

As evidence, he would tell us to find out where Columbia's professors had done their undergraduate work. One would soon see many an esteemed professor began their higher education at either a local or state-funded college.

Teaching at Bucks County Community College during the spring semester was so much fun I was sorry when the classes ended. Inclement weather and unruly behavior did not empty out the rooms in February as during the previous winter. Those one or two disruptive students who had not outgrown familiar (and boring) adolescent pranks and habits, such as creating an endless din during lectures, were fortunately not among the numbers in Foundations of Education.

The spring semester students were focused and enthusiastic about becoming teachers, and/or realistically exploring whether this was the right profession for them to consider. The success of the class was in its composition of students that was immediately evident looking at the front row: adults returning to school focused, interested, eager.

For several of these adult learners, it was the second time around after dropping out of college because of failing grades during a youth often self-described as feckless. Others immigrated to the United States with advanced degrees from their homeland, which were not transferable to this country.

Then there were several younger students: refugees from private colleges and universities who came to the community college when the rising tuition costs outstripped savings. In the euphoria of being accepted to a prestigious school, their parents might have underestimated, or perhaps later had a change in income, which made paying exorbitant tuitions impossible.

Over the course of the semester, one such student confided she found the classes at Bucks more challenging than at the private school. Next semester, this same student will enter the education department at Temple University, which is not so costly for residents of Pennsylvania and has a reciprocal agreement with the community college for qualified students to matriculate.

Having this diverse group of students interspersed among the recent high school graduates sent off a positive message about the class and the seriousness of attending college. I love to see friendships forming in my classes across the barriers of age and ethnicity. Oftentimes, students with different life experiences share their enthusiasm about children and a potential career in education, unrestricted by differences in age and situation.

Last semester, one such group formed between women with grown children who had been battling cancer for 10 years, a 29-year-old vibrant bride from North Carolina, a young man who had just graduated from high school, joined by accredited teachers from Barbados and Uzbekistan. It would be difficult to find a group of cohorts like this outside of a community college. Eager to get involved in campus activities as a group, they joined the Future Teachers Club and kept us provided with information about activities, fund-raisers and chocolate chip cookies from bake sales.

My own college education began at Santa Barbara City College where I spent two years before moving on to San Francisco State University, eventually completing a doctorate at Columbia. Having had a less than sterling high school career, I was 28 when I started college and fearful it would be a similarly negative experience. A friend helped me register, and without her help, I probably would have gone out the back door forever.

Not wanting to assume a full schedule while working full time as a waitress, I signed up for two classes. The first was in African history, a personal interest, and the other in child development. The year was 1970 when the country was in upheaval, and Santa Barbara housed many disenfranchised students who wanted out of the Vietnam quagmire as soon as possible.

It was an explosive time, literally and figuratively: literally, because the Bank of America was blown up and, figuratively, because schools were in a state of turmoil with constant cancellations. Although I was as actively involved in the demonstrations as possible, I persevered on with my classes, finishing a 30-page typewritten paper on the revolutionary movement in Angola. Yes! My first paper after high school was an opus.

And who was the professor that accepted it? He was the esteemed Bishop Crowther, an Anglican priest who had spent many years in South Africa under Apartheid. A Ph.D. from Stanford taught the other class; she was just developing what would become one of the finest two-year programs of early childhood education in the nation.

These two classes were my personal introduction to a community college and the insight into the riches prospective students might find therein. Paraphrasing Lawrence Cremin, education can be found in the Halls of Ivy, which is soothing to the eye, or in the barrack-like austere walls of a local school, less appealing at first glance but, if an effort is made, ultimately rewarding.