Steve Nunez

Steve Nunez

“If you look back to the moment right before Yvonne was admitted to the University of Texas (with the goal of earning a bachelor’s degree), you can see the paths diverging in front of her. One would have led her to a community college in San Antonio and the other to graduate school at Harvard.”

That quote was nearly the last sentence to an otherwise fabulous episode of the podcast “The Campus Tour Has Been Canceled – This American Life.”

This podcast was originally a radio series on National Public Radio and is now easily found on your favorite podcast app.

The gist of this particular episode was about how the infamous SAT and ACT tests, often used as an academic metric for college admissions, were imprecise tools that favored the affluent. The reasons for this are a little complicated and outside the scope of this article, but the unintentional outcome has been that those colleges and universities that have relied heavily on the “unbiased” SAT or ACT scores often admitted more white students and fewer students of color than if they had just used students’ high school grade point averages alone.

Don’t get me started – this was one of my topics in my dissertation and I could write forever about it here (or you could just read my dissertation and be only the fifth person to ever reach that milestone).

We all carry inherent biases – it is the nature of the human existence. Many of those biases, often unintentionally, come out in productions of the entertainment industry and the media. For example, how often are “Southerners” presented as uneducated, backward rednecks or hillbillies in the movies or TV shows?

Growing up in Southwest Virginia, one of the first things folks notice about me is my accent – which, I believe, is confounding to many when I’m introduced as the president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College.

A similar stigma exists for community colleges. Community colleges are third-rate, some say. They are only for those that can’t hack a “real” university or college.

And while the cost of getting an education at a community college is substantially lower than most other higher education options – that cost difference is indicative of poor quality, not value.

More than once I’ve heard community members say something like, “Not everyone needs a post-secondary education – that’s why we have the community college.”

In many cases these “types” of comments are not meant with malice and in some cases are even well intentioned – heck, some of those comments have been made by my good friends who work outside the higher education business.

But ultimately, comments like those are – well, ignorant.

Which brings me back to the quote at the top of this article.

I find these kinds of blanket quotes about community colleges to be infuriating and uninformed. The author of that episode was describing the intensive support that the University of Texas provides students who need additional academic help and attention.

He showered UT with praise for its seemingly unique way of supporting students who might not otherwise make it at UT.

And all I could think about, while I listened, is this is exactly what community colleges have been doing for decades. Community colleges are unique because we have an open door concept – we welcome students with varying levels of academic preparedness, meet them where they are at, remediate their skills if necessary, and help them attain their academic goals which may be to simply enter the workforce as quickly as possible or to transfer to a university to attain a bachelor’s degree.

Ultimately, going to a university or to a community college is not an “either-or” situation, and it’s not fair to insinuate that a student who goes straight to a university will be more successful than a student who goes to a community college. Believe it or not, some community college students matriculate to Harvard and many, including myself, end up in graduate school, too.

Steve Nunez is president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. He writes a monthly column in The Tribune-Democrat and at www.TribDem.com.

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