If community and technical colleges ever had a celebrity poster boy, it would have to be Rodney Dangerfield, because they get no respect.
By many measures, two-year schools are enjoying renewed appeal and attention. More students are enrolling and graduating from them, finding jobs at high rates and getting decent paychecks. But despite those successes, is the opinion of the so-called 13th grade changing at all?
Certainly the stereotype still exists. In March, comedian and "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno had some fun at the expense of two-year schools when students in California were protesting steep tuition hikes. Leno said he could tell they were community college students because of protest signs that read, "skool is expensive," "let us lern" and "don't raise tooishun"—a skit that provoked a strong rebuke from the American Association of Community Colleges.
The perception also exists among its own students. Asked about the main reason for attending a two-year college, one student replied, "My lapse in judgment." Another said that opinions among his peers were generally very positive. However, he added, "There is an overwhelming attitude among the public in my area that community college is the 13th grade."
In general it's hard to get a read on what two-year students think of the schools they attend because as a group they are much more diverse in terms of age and other demographics than four-year students. Add to that the many different programs of varying lengths, not to mention differing student objectives (get a job or matriculate to a four-year college?) and one discovers that there is no "typical" two-year student.
Those disparate voices could be heard in e-mail correspondence and informal surveys with upward of 100 two-year students, most of them at Riverland Community College, Century College and Hennepin Technical College, all in Minnesota, and the University of Montana- Helena College of Technology.
The general consensus was not one of unbridled, cheerleader enthusiasm, but one that saw two-year colleges through the prism of practicality and utility. While some derided their own choice of college, more than a few students said they were attracted by high-quality programs and the individualized attention students receive at two-year schools.
If there was consensus on any topic, it was on why most of them chose two-year schools. As a Riverland student summed up: "Lower cost, closer to home." Six students responding from the University of Montana-Helena College of Technology all said cost was a central factor in their choice of school.
One student said she attended Riverland Community College in outstate Minnesota because "it was the closest to my house, and I knew I didn't have the time to complete a four-year degree going full time." Married with two children, she believes simply getting a two-year degree will give her a leg up.
"I live in a primarily rural community, and there is not an overabundance of four-year degrees, so I feel completing a two-year degree will help tremendously not just in finding a job but also in the sense of accomplishment I feel finishing what I have started."