Community college and other options

Darla M. Cooper’s report on how California’s community colleges serve former foster youth repeats a lot of the findings and recommendations that I’ve reviewed in some of my previous posts. But one of the points it brings up that is worth elaborating is the unique role that community colleges play in educating foster youth, for whom four year colleges are often out of reach for a whole host of reasons. Comparatively, community colleges are more easily accessible—especially in terms of affordability—and their focus on technical training and career placement is attractive to students seeking to establish financial stability sooner rather than later.

In the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the the type of advice we should be dispensing to young people regarding their post high school plans. I grew up in an environment where it was an unquestioned assumption that I would go off to a four-year college, so I’m making an effort to broaden my knowledge of the post secondary educational landscape. (The Options Institute has a series of workshops surveying the college landscape, defining “college” as anything from two- to four-year schools to certificate and training programs.)

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that community colleges commonly serve as springboards to four-year institutions. Cooper reports that of 74 students she surveyed, 69% of them cited transferring to a four-year college as a goal, compared to the 36% who enrolled in community college simply in pursuit of an associate’s degree. (10) On the institutional side, 57% of the schools she investigated cited increasing student transfers to four-year schools as their highest priority. (16)

At heart I fully agree with Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff that the foster care system should make higher education a principal aim to help our youth succeed as independent adults. Resisting the tendency to set these teenagers on the vocational ed. track, they write that “[f]oster care teens should be expected to graduate from high school and prepare for college, if they wish. Anything less must be considered unacceptable.” (Beyond the Foster Care System 123)

But as I speak to more professionals in the field, I realize that there is also such a thing as pushing teens too hard toward college. A therapist experienced in counseling foster children told me that, academic and financial concerns aside, teenagers emerging from care are often not emotionally prepared for the transition to college. Pushing a promising student in that direction can be disastrous, especially if there aren’t enough institutional and social supports in place to ease her adjustment. For this reason, the mentoring group Adoptment is easing their stance on college as a goal for every young person, acknowledging that college is not always or immediately the best option for some of the teenagers leaving care.

I confess that there is something in this view that makes me extremely uncomfortable. The people who tend to say that “college is not for everyone” are usually talking about other people’s kids rather than their own. But I also think that it’s important to be aware of all the elements that go into making an individual “college ready” and to recognize that college is not the only or even the best path for everyone. Of course how to give wise counsel to young people looking to travel outside the traditional college route then becomes a concern, as the folks at Adoptment are currently learning.

Having taught very career-minded undergrads at NYU and witnessed the alarming rise of college tuition, I’ve been wrestling with the thought that not all bright young students should feel obligated to pursue a bachelor’s degree. I say this, however, with one very big caveat: that we first revamp our educational system from kindergarten up so that everyone would graduate high school with the academic skills we currently expect of college students by the end of their first year. I am aware of the common wisdom that today’s job market demands that job seekers be increasingly educated—”a master’s is the new bachelor’s” school of thought—but the jury is still out on that debate. The reality is that too many young adults embark on post-collegiate life saddled by debt they may not be able to repay due to the weak job market. There must be other ways of engaging, cultivating, and disciplining the talents of individuals who do not necessarily want to inhabit the world of ideas as intensively as a classic liberal arts education demands (and I say this as a fervent advocate of the humanities).

Although I write that college may not be for everyone, I am not advocating that we widen the divide between those who go off to college and those who don’t. To the contrary, I believe that we should be endowing all our young people with the skills to think, learn, and speak for themselves for the rest of their lives much earlier and much better than we are now. I actually have a sneaking suspicion that if we strengthen primary and secondary schooling for all, that more students will be graduating truly “college ready” in the sense that they will be intellectually prepared and emotionally excited to immerse themselves deeply in the realm of ideas at college.

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