Community College by Choice: Two-Year Colleges Are Increasingly Serving High-Achieving Students, While at the Same Time, Trying to Avoid Mission Creep

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Certainly, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno has nurtured the perception that community colleges are a punishment for underperforming high school students by joking that community colleges aren't "real colleges." However, this perception belies the reality that contemporary community colleges serve students seeking trade skills, but they also serve a growing population of "students with choice": high school graduates possessing grade point averages high enough to go to reputable four-year universities. Many in this latter group choose to start their collegiate careers at two-year institutions.

In 2005, after being fed up with the latest Leno crack against community colleges, Dr. Betty Young, then-president of Northwest State Community College in Archbold, Ohio, embarked on a "Lessons for Leno Tour"--a cross-county road trip that high-lighted the numerous opportunities community colleges provide. The tour made pit stops at 10 community colleges between Ohio and California and culminated with a visit with Leno on his "Tonight Show" set in Burbank. Knowing Leno is an avid collector of classic cars and motorcycles, Young rode her Harley-Davidson Heritage on the tour--the same type of motorcycle Leno rides.

Though the perceived lack of academic rigor at community colleges had become the butt of many Leno jokes, Young says most two-year colleges are "highly respected" within their local communities for providing transfer credits that are recognized by brand name universities as equal to their own. Young says the perception of what community colleges have to offer has lagged considerably behind the reality of their rapid evolution.

Young says she outlined for Leno the many programs and benefits community colleges offer, and Leno hasn't joked about community colleges on-air since meeting with her in 2005.

"Part of our challenge in community college leadership is to be sure that we tell our story. Sometimes we're so busy doing the good work that we do that we don't take enough time to tell our story.... I really believe and I know since that time that Jay Leno has great respect for community colleges and really gets us. He even funds a scholarship for folks attending community colleges" Young says.

"I wanted Leno to be aware he could really make a positive impact if he would lay off of us. And he has been a good sport about that, and I think he has done that" she adds.

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Savvy Consumers of Education

Anthony J. Felicetti, associate vice president for academic services and enrollment management at Monroe Community College, says his college has seen a boom in the number of "students with choice" who may not get into Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but could gain admission to most four-year colleges.

"The big shift we've seen here in Rochester, N.Y., is large numbers of students who are very well prepared academically and who look at us as the first two years of their baccalaureate training. We go after those students; we think we're a good option for them, and so we try to position the college in a way that they will look at us a little more seriously than they might have in the past," Felicetti says.

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He adds that one of the programs that has fueled the surging enrollment of top-performing high school students is a seminar hosted by MCC titled, "College 101 for Parents: An Overview of the College Planning Process." During the seminar, Felicetti says MCC officials and officials from area four-year colleges answer questions from high school students and their parents about the college enrollment process for two- and four-year institutions.

Having four-year college representatives tell parents and students that credits taken at MCC are fully transferable and are the equivalent of similar classes offered at their schools helps dispel any misconceptions about the quality of MCC classes, Felicetti says. …