Remember college? Four years dedicated to learning. Long nights discussing how to change the world with people who would become your lifelong friends. Sleeping late because your classes started at 10:00 a.m. Professors who encouraged you and advised you on your future. Interesting work/study projects that challenged you.
Now imagine if while you were in college you had to support a family and work more than 35 or more hours a week at a low-paying job as a home health aid or fast food worker.
You have to worry about childcare. Overcrowding at your school means that you're shut out of the classes you need for your degree. There is no time to make new friends. Adjunct faculty bring real-time expertise to the classroom but often don't have office hours. Even parking and getting enough sleep -- seemingly everyday concerns -- loom large amid the long hours and constant stress.
That's the experience of many of the more than 10.5 million students in this country who attend community colleges. One out of three community college students has family income of less than $20,000, and 69 percent work 35 hours or more a week.
Community colleges are home to non-traditional students -- the displaced worker, the returning soldier, the single mom. Often these students need to take remedial courses in English and math before they can even pursue a degree or certificate program. They struggle to manage work, family obligations and studies. This precarious balancing act can often fall apart with a change in their work schedule, a sick child or a broken down car.
I don't want to imply that we should feel sorry for community college students. They don't want our pity. But I believe we need to do a better job in understanding the obstacles that they face in their desire to have a better life through educational opportunities.
Community college students are hardworking and dedicated. Yet those who only crunch the numbers often only see their college completion rates and hold them to the same standards as traditional students, who have the luxury of attending college without worrying about money and no responsibilities pulling them away from their studies.
Thirty-six percent of community college students are the first in their family to attend college. This means that they lack role models and navigating through a degree program may be more difficult for them.
We need a new formula for calculating the success rate of community college students. If they take six years to get a degree, we should applaud them. When they have to drop out, we should continue to reach out to them and see what can be done to get them to re-enroll. We need to find them apprenticeships with local companies so they can earn while they learn. And when they do get a degree or a complete a certificate program, publish their names and stories in the local newspaper as an inspiration to others.
President Obama's idea of free community college captivated our imagination. In Tennessee with a Republican Governor and in Oregon with a Democrat as Governor this is already happening. We in education will watch closely what transpires in these states. Will more people decide to get a degree if it is free?
I believe as a nation everyone should have access to higher education. To lift people out of poverty, to transform lives, and to show future generations that the American dream is still possible.
Let's stop talking about what community college students are not accomplishing. Let's celebrate each step they make toward fulfilling their dream to becoming a police officer, an EMT, a nurse, a firefighter or a skilled worker in the factories of the future.
Those who get their education at a community college make us stronger as a nation. They deserve our support.