What You Need To Know About Community Colleges

So you're despairing of your future as an academic research scientist, and looking for "alternative" careers. When I was a grad student and postdoc I often heard my fellow students/postdocs say things like "well, I'll just get a teaching job" or "I'll just go teach at a community college". The implication was that any community college would be so incredibly grateful that such a fabulous research scientists had deigned to come teach at their lowly ranks, they would jump at the chance to hire them.

Admittedly I was a graduate student a hundred years ago, and maybe this kind of attitude no longer prevails. But I am not sure. There is an awful lot of snobbery in the upper echelons of academia about what community colleges are and what they do.

One thing they are not is just an easy place for you to pick up a teaching job without having to do any preparation. In case you are thinking of community colleges as your "safety" academic career, you might want to do some reading up on them to develop your understanding of their unique mission. A good place to start would be the recent Chronicle of Higher Education special issue on community colleges, published October 26, 2007 (the entire Section B of that issue). I'd recommend seeking it out on your campus. The whole thing is available online, but only if you have a subscription, in which case my blog post is not news to you.

Some topics covered in the special issue include:

  • How to move students through remedial math more effectively
  • The information needs of transfer students
  • What it's like to work with so many students who are living in poverty
  • The role rural institutions play in their communities

Also included is a wonderful essay by M. Garrett Bauman, The Double Consciousness of Community Colleges. Bauman discusses the philosophy of education for blacks put forth by Booker T. Washington's and W.E.B. Du Bois, and uses this to illuminate the split consciousness of community colleges: "between jobs and ideas and between security and esteem". Bauman's essay is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and he concludes:

Now that we have the muscle to be more equal partners with legislatures, business, and four-year colleges and universities, we ought to assert ourselves more boldly and move up the hierarchy of needs. We should pursue higher quality in all our programs, from remedial to honors, by refusing to increase our workloads so much that teaching becomes impossible. We should embrace our mixed nature by, for example, requiring students in career-training programs to take more liberal-arts courses and requiring liberal-arts students to take some practical, career-program courses. And we should offer more-advanced courses and enrichment for our talented tenth.

I have more excellent students than ever. They seek us out now. But I am also glad for the hard cases: They stretch my heart. What we have done that few anticipated was learn to truly care about our denigrated students. Each day we help to that first rung a few who were supposed to fail. This is not submission, but fulfillment. We can thank both Washington and Du Bois for showing the way.

It is worth the effort to get your hands on the special issue just to read this one essay.

The American Association of Community Colleges can also provide you with some quick information about community colleges. Their Fast Facts and Historical Information are helpful.

Community colleges are not a "consolation prize" for not having a research career. Teaching at a community college is a vocation in its own right. You can make a very important contribution to education at a community college. If you are seriously thinking of working at a community college, and/or if you have an interview at one - good luck!

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Thank you for this post--I will have to check out that issue! I have been considering teaching at a community college when I finish my degree. My passion is public science education for adults and to me community colleges are the higher education equivalent of K-12 public education. True, you still have to pay for your classes at a CC but because the cost of taking classes at a CC is much less than at any other type of institution, it is much more accessible to more of the population. Another aspect that appeals to me is that as a professor, your focus is entirely on teaching, not divided between teaching and research.

You are right about people thinking of teaching at a CC as a consolation prize--the type of thing you do only if you can't get a faculty position at a "real" school. I don't think that has changed much over the years. I have heard people say, "Well, I guess I could teach at a community college." It makes me a little reluctant to tell people that I'm thinking of going that route on purpose. I'm not really up for their condescension.

If my professors at community college are anything to go by, the reason someone would want to teach at community college is if they have a political axe to grind. Feeling guilty for being born white? Go teach at community college! Feeling bad about all the poor, downtrodden Mexicans? Go teach at community college! Wish that the homeless would inherit the earth? Go teach at community college! Angry that you were born with a vagina instead of a penis? Go teach at community college!

By Professors (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

my experience as a grad student has been different in that i haven't found many folks who want to work at a CC at all, never mind as a "consolation prize", because of the fact that most people think of it as difficult work in a difficult situation. and that they feel that they are not trained adequately to deal with really working as a teacher.

i have thought of teaching CC also, but again, that is because my passion is teaching and esp teaching students who want to learn but i shy away from it because i'm not sure i'm qualified.

I know someone who thought a masters would be enough to get a job at a CC, which is the person's dream job. Nowadays, the competition for Ph.D. level jobs is so fierce that the person is unlikely to get a CC position without a PhD. It's sad that someone with a PhD, trained in research (not teaching) and who probably looks at a CC as a consolation prize will get a position over a person less trained in research but who really wants it as a first choice. When research is not even part of the job responsibilites.

By ecogeofemme (not verified) on 26 Oct 2007 #permalink

I went back to school for a year and took anatomy and physiology in the same semester at my local CC. My instructors just happened to be a married couple of neurophysiology PhD's who chose to teach at a CC because of the schedule flexibility it offered them. Their three children were enrolled in private school and my profs held faculty and administration positions at this school, for tuition discount.

These were two brilliant academics who obviously loved teaching and brought that with them into the classroom. Considering their fields, they very appropriately thought I was insane for taking the courseload I did, but I pulled a 4.0 that semester and a significant amount of the credit is due to them. I couldn't have done so well or learned so much if I had not had such gifted profs who chose to teach at my CC. They devoted a great deal of time and effort to their lesson plans and their students. I loved that semster, thanks to them!

I've seen lots of that kind of snobbery. In my field, teaching at a lowly liberal arts college is a sign of not being good enough to handle a real reasearch job, and community college jobs are simply beyond the pale. It's hard to generalize about CC jobs, though, because every state regulates their CCs very differently. I taught one semester at a California CC (one of the best CC systems), and they put me through the ringer in the job interview. They wanted hard evidence that I knew my field, and that I was a very good teacher. They cared about their students a lot. And I soon found out why: those students were motivated, serious, and mature. They lacked a lot of writing and reading skills, but they worked hard to improve. The only reason I don't want to pursue a CC career is that the teaching load is crushing: classes are way too large, and many profs have 4-4 or 5-5 teaching loads. That would burn me out in no time.

Thanks for this post on CCs. I have worked at CCs doing Tech Support from 01 - 04. I started going to a University as an undergrad in 04 and started a Tech Support job at the same place as well.

What I found was that CCs tended to have smaller classroom sizes and seemed to be more focused on quality education. Whereas Universities seem to look at themselves as being the beacon of education and look down upon the CCs. It really was kinda sad for me. I came across quite a few University Professors that had pretty negative remarks about CCs and in all honesty they had probably never worked at one or worked with anyone from a CC.

Without the education I got at the Community College level I would have never been prepared for adequately for the University, and I may not have considered continuing on with my education to the Masters program I am in now.

Although a community college faculty position is a "lesser" academic job by some measures (especially if you're anxious to do original scholarship and eager to do lots of publishable research), it's mostly a "different" job. My California CC position is a 15-hour per week teaching job (plus a number of other duties, see more here).

Community colleges provide the main source of education for adults who never went to college before (we teach a lot more people in California than the University of California or the California State University system) as well as an economical alternative for high school grads who want to experiment a bit in college before transferring to a four-year institution. My students are here for professional certificates from our technical-vocational programs, transferrable units for future bachelor's degrees, and continuing education for job or salary placement. We have plenty to do.

I must disagree with ecogeofemme who says that you're unlikely to get a CC job without a PhD these days. Only about one-fifth of my math dept colleagues have doctorates. We haven't hired a candidate with a PhD in five years. A master's degree is still a perfectly good calling card. While the number of PhDs has slowly grown at my school, we don't see a rush to hire people with the highest academic degrees. Research degrees are often irrelevant to our work here and some candidates are amusingly naive about flaunting their doctorates and publication lists as if we would cry tears of joy at the prospect of hiring them. (One notoriously unsuccessful candidate told us in his cover letter he was "willing" to teach at our school until a "more suitable" position opened up elsewhere for someone of his qualifications. We didn't even grant him an interview.) It may be different in other community college systems, but not the one I'm in.

One good thing about community colleges that I would like to point out to grad students who have kept CC teaching in mind as a possible career alternative: While I won't encourage you to think of a CC job as merely a fall-back position or safety net, it is a most satisfying career for many people and it's easier than most jobs to sample on a trial basis. My college and others are often eager for part-time instructors to fill out the teaching schedule, so you might be able to snag a class to teach while still in grad school. You can find out if it suits you. Then, if you like it, study up on what your particular academic discipline in the CC system is looking for in CC faculty, because the competition for positions is fierce.

A quick comment on graduate students who are not thinking about a job at a CC because "they feel that they are not trained adequately to deal with really working as a teacher." I'll wager that those same graduate students see a faculty position, where they would also be teaching college level material as a significant part of their assigned responsibilities, as their main career goal. I'd guess that most of them have also taught in college as a grad student.

Anyone else see a problem here? Shouldn't you be worried about your teaching skills if you want to be a faculty member? (Maybe not, since it is rarely rewarded and can always be passed off to an unqualified grad student.) Shouldn't you worry about the quality of your undergrad experience if the person teaching you did not even have an MS degree, the minimum qualification to teach at a CC? (You can't teach a lab at my CC with the qualifications I had when I taught them as a first-year grad student.)

I'll also add that the people who apply at a CC (or a liberal arts college) as a fall-back position out of research had better keep that quiet. I have yet to write part 5 (on the CC job market) of a series I wrote last summer ... before work got in the way ... but there are some relevant bits in part 3 plus the many things you can find in the open parts of the Chronicle, such as what Ms. Mentor and others have written in the past in their mentoring and job-search columns. You need to know the lingo of "learning" and the very real issues of teaching students who are seriously poor, have sick children, are in abusive relationships, yet might be seriously talented college material.

By the way, that link is
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