Throughout my career I've been privileged to meet some wonderful people doing innovative things to improve outcomes for low-income students in the K-12 space.
When we meet we always connect on our mutual desire to help students break cycles of poverty through education. All are excited that I've written a book. But when they ask, "What's your book called," things change.
"My book is called Community College Success," I say.
The change is subtle. It's in their eyes and the line of their smile. They stay smiling. They don't mean to be rude. But I've just said two words they don't want to hear: "community college." They want their students to go to the best four-year colleges in the country.
If students in their program do choose community college, they'll ask me for advice, but with that same sense of disappointment. The sentiment is "despite everything we've done, our students still aren't going to a four-year college. This must mean we've failed."
I get it, totally. And I really appreciate the very hard work so many are doing in K-12 to help disadvantaged students reach the highest echelons of college success. I too really want more low-income students in our ivy-leagues and other great four-year institutions.
But I also don't think a student going to community college means its too late for that to happen.
And it scares me how much the negative stereotypes of community colleges have crept into the national psyche. Because they creep into community college students' psyches as well and make them feel unworthy of success before they've even begun.
The community college graduation rates aren't good. They aren't. But that doesn't mean the students aren't good. And it doesn't mean they still can't succeed with the right strategies and the right people.
The truth is that no matter what the benefits and drawbacks are of community colleges, about half of all undergraduates will attend community college every year. And we can't write them off. We can't ignore them. We can't underestimate their potential.
If we do, we all lose.
Here are some ways to make sure your students succeed in community college and beyond:
1. Check your beliefs about community college: If you believe that going to community college is a failure you could be translating that message to your students in the way you talk to them, even if you never say it directly. Just like I can read the disappointment, they'll be able to read it too. There is nothing worse we can do for community college students than make them feel like a failure before they've even begun.
Consider success stories like mine, like the many community college students who win the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, and students I've met all over the country who start at community college and go on to attend and graduate from Harvard, MIT, Brown, and many other incredible universities.
For many, community college is a chance at the American Dream. But if people give up on the students who choose community college, they will likely give up too.
2. Give them a copy of my book: Okay, so I promise I didn't write this article just so I could tell you about my book. Really. It's just I truly put all the community college success strategies I know into it.
The book focuses on teaching students how to build the crucial relationships every student needs for college success, but that often community college students don't have built in to their college programming or family unit.
I don't share it because it's mine, but because I've read the letters from the students who've told me how it's helped.
3. Connect them with the others who will be attending community college: Set up a meeting or fun event to connect the students from your school or program who are going to be attending community college; encourage them to get to know each other and build a support group or study group.
4. Set up a tour of the community college your students will be attending: Many community colleges have recruiters who give wonderful tours. See if the community college where your students will be attending does a tour and take your students on one. Encourage them to ask questions and make note of some of the most important resources they should be using frequently such as the library, computer lab, tutoring center, advising office, career center, and student life office.
5. Make sure they set up a clear academic plan: Students need to know why they are in community college and what they want to do after they graduate. Most who attend community college want to get their A.A. degree and transfer to a four-year institution; if that is the case they need to identify the top four-year institutions to which they'd like to transfer and then identify those universities' requirements in order to match it up with their major and educational plan at their community college. This can be complicated, but it's crucial. Some advisors are better than others so it's vital the student understand how to be an advocate for his or her educational future.
If they intend on doing a career-focused program they'll still want to set up an educational plan and get a firm idea on all the requirements involved (e.g. most community colleges with nursing programs require a separate application to get into the nursing program after certain pre-requisites are taken).
6. Encourage them to sign up for a college success class: Most community colleges have a college success course that teaches students crucial skills like time management, organization, note taking, and goal-setting. Some students view these as "easy" classes, but the strategies taught can be top-notch. I took it when I was a sophomore in college and even as a straight-A student I came away from the class with excellent techniques that improved my college experience even more.
7. Encourage them to go to club recruitment and become a club leader: Getting involved really helps students feel that sense of belonging to the campus and find positive peers who can encourage their academic success. Look on the college website for the college's student life office and find out if and when they do a club recruitment event where the clubs set up tables to recruit new members.
Encourage your students to attend and strongly encourage them to become an officer. Most students are hesitant to become a leader, but I've learned all they really need to take the leap is one mentor who will look them in the eye and tell them what they see in them and why they should run for a leadership position.
One tremendous benefit of community college is that a freshman or sophomore can easily become president of a club, such as SGA.
8. Help your students understand office hours: Even as a high-achieving high school student with great teachers, I was terrified of college professors. When I first attended community college I just went to class and went home. It wasn't until a professor wrote "see me" on an essay that I realized the power of meeting with a professor.
That professor told me about the college's honors program and encouraged me to dream big. He told me community college could take me anywhere.
In his classes he also emphasized how we could use his office hours for help. Professors became less scary and I realized they really cared.
Encourage your students to visit every professor every semester. Their professors are the ones who can take your place, who can guide them in their higher education journey, who can write recommendation letters for transferring and scholarships, and who can help them grow academically.
Another wonderful benefit to community college is the smaller class sizes and direct access to professors.
9. Tell your students to look into an honors program, Phi Theta Kappa, and the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship: Some community colleges have incredible honors programs that students can qualify for either as a high school student or sometimes within their first semester at the community college. Find out if the local community college has one and connect your students with its director.
Also be sure to inform them of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honors society for two-year colleges. It's an incredible program and has chapters in two-year colleges all around the world.
Students receive many honors invitations and some are indeed "scammy." Phi Theta Kappa is well known and opens them up to an opportunity to be involved in a fantastic club, a beneficial network, and amazing scholarship opportunities.
They should also know about the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which awards up to $30,000 per year for their bachelor's degree (and once they complete their bachelor's degree they're then eligible to qualify for up to $50,000 for graduate school).
10. Connect them with me: I have spent a ton of time over the past few years developing free resources to help students and they can find them on my blog and YouTube channel. Feel free to send your students that way for continued support and advice throughout their journey.
And because you've read this entire article (which basically means you're awesome) I'm going to share my e-mail address with you here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to give it to your community college students to ask me personally for advice.
Thank you for all you do to help students succeed.