College for the unentitled

Writing in the Washington Post, Susan Sharpe, a community college instructor, compares her daughter’s Reed education with the education of two-year college students.

A typical English teacher at NOVA has 125 to 135 students a semester, which is almost triple the number per teacher at Reed. For better and worse, we’re not intellectuals actively engaged in scholarly pursuits. Our students don’t get to leave home and are not isolated from the cares of the world — they have jobs, children, parents, car trouble; they have to make their meals and pay their bills and haul out their trash. They have almost no time or opportunity for community with one another. They differ in nationality, age, educational goals.

We teach only two years of college. If you were to take one of our sophomores and look at his or her academic work, and look at the sophomore work of my daughter’s classmates, the differences would be huge. The Reed students read 10 times as much, and they read original texts by thinkers and scholars, ancient and modern.

Community college students usually read magazine articles and textbooks, summaries of the works by the thinkers and scholars. The Reed students write better; not that their writing doesn’t have sins, but the sins are different. They can be verbose, stuffy, sometimes disorganized. But their expression is richly textured, subtle, even occasionally original. Almost all community college students, on the other hand, have at least a few problems with grammar, which get in the way. They tend to write simple sentences in order to avoid mistakes, and thus do not express their most subtle thoughts. Their vocabularies are more limited, and their thinking strives for the dogmatically conventional. Their most earnest question about an assignment is usually, “I don’t understand exactly what you want.” These aren’t necessarily differences in intelligence. They are the differences in the students’ experiences and how they have been taught.

Most students who start community college hoping to transfer to a four-year college never make it through. They’re distracted by jobs and family responsibilities; they get stuck in remedial classes. For those who persist, it’s a wonderful opportunity. Sharpe writes about a grandmother, a former truck driver hoping to be a teacher, who was offered a scholarship to an elite women’s college (apparently Smith), but warned she might have to work five or six hours a week.

I watched her face. Only five or six hours? In Virginia, she took care of grandchildren and a household, went to school full time, worked 30 hours as a teacher’s aide. She looked at me and started to cry, and then she was embarrassed and beat her fist on the table and said: “I never in my life expected to be offered an opportunity like this one! If America isn’t the greatest country in the world, I want to hear someone say it. Just come over here and try saying that to me!”

Via Amardeep Singh.

About Joanne


  1. Reed is the top of the tops so it is unfair
    to compare a community college with that. A
    more fair comparison would be with a 4-year
    state college (such as my alma mater, Bridgewater
    State College in Mass.).

  2. I’m not sure I trust the 10-fold comparison, since it may depend on the actual classes being compared. Someone pursuing a vocational certificate wouldn’t take the same Literature classes as a transfer student. On top of that, Sharpe may be exaggerating a bit.

  3. Comparing community colleges to state colleges doesn’t make much difference. The students either will or will not succeed based upon thier own merits. The ones who have the will find someone to tutor them where they’re behind (I have been the tutor several times). Yeah, some of them might not have taken the same basic classes that I took, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to take the core classes at the CC. The ones who would have made it anyway will do fine. The ones who wouldn’t–won’t. The where doesn’t matter as much as a lot of people think, and the who matters a lot more.

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    I agree with Holly. When I taught at Union College in upstate NY, I saw several transfer students from a particular local local community college, which had a longstanding transfer pipeline to Union and was known for doing a very good at prepping students who intended to finish a 4-year degree. Some of these kids were easily as good or better than the typical Union student who had been admitted as a freshperson. It’s not fair to generalize about community college students because of the extreme diversity both of the students and of the kinds of academic programs the
    CC’s offer.

  5. “freshperson”….freshperson???? My-oh-my: Aren’t we PC?!

  6. Maybe it should be ‘freshmyn’.

  7. Steve LaBonne says:

    How about “fresh meat”? 😉

  8. Cardinal Fang says:

    I wonder how many continuing education adults Ms. Sharpe has in her classes.

    I’ve taken classes at a couple of my local community colleges in California. In the classes I’ve taken, maybe 25% of the students are adults who are not trying for a grade or a degree, but just want to learn the subject. I’ve found that those students bring up the level of the classes. It’s a win-win situation: the adults learn Spanish or whatever, and the younger students get the role models of students who study hard and sincerely want to learn.

    Also, maybe I’m just lucky but the classes I’ve taken have been, in the main, excellent. They’ve been just as good and just as demanding as the introductory classes at the Ivy League college where I got my degree. The instructors, free from academic pressure to research, have had the time and the ability to teach. The disadvantage of a community college is that it offers only introductory classes and nothing deeper.

    As should be clear, I’m a huge fan of my local community college.

    (Oh, and I’ll echo the previous posters: News Flash! Reed College is not a representative four-year college and its students are not representative students!)


  1. DaveShearon says:

    Worms for Reading

    The June 15 Wall Street Journal’s center column front page story is on the “stunts” principals are doing across the country to psych students (usally elementary or early middle) up for “high stakes” tests. Eating worms, kissing pigs, dressing in