The magic of the community college is not merely that the best and brightest attend there. 

Unsung Heroes

How many cars have you ever seen with window stickers that say "John Tyler Community College" or "J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College"? There are plenty of stickers for U.Va, William and Mary, and universities from across the country. You even see stickers proclaiming pride in primary and secondary schools. But where are the community college stickers?

This is an odd fact when you consider that in Virginia over 60 percent of all students in public higher education attend a two-year college. Why don't they display their education on their cars or the gear that they wear?

The answer is a cliche: low self-esteem. I recently mentioned to a friend of mine that within my lifetime we will have a president who attended a community college. The scorn of his response suggests that he thinks no one who attended a community college could ever rise to the presidency or that the rest of the country would never trust affairs of state to a person who owes part of their education to a local community college.

But we've already come closer than my friend knows: Ross Perot attended Texarkana Community College. Community colleges have educated governors like Benjamin Cayetano (Hawaii) and congressmen like Henry Gonzalez and Kweisi Mfume (now leader of the NAACP). Community colleges have produced Pulitzer Prize winners like Gwendolyn Brooks, Van Cliburn Piano Competition winner Jon Nakamatsu, television anchor Jim Lehrer, and even Rhodes scholars like Maureen Dunne. HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard attended community colleges. The list goes on and on.

But the magic of the community college is not merely that the best and brightest attend there or that the most magnificent futures begin there. Community colleges are remarkable because they open their doors to all people in the community. You have either attended or will attend a community college at some point, or you are related to someone who has.

A young man named Justin, who earned high grades in high school, worked on the yearbook, and acted in school plays, first enrolled at George Mason University. Within weeks, he says, he knew he would not return for his second year. Some of his classes were held in auditoriums with 200 and 300 students. The professor didn't know his name, Justin says, "and if you fail, their attitude is 'It sucks to be you.'"

Justin took a semester off and at the suggestion of his parents, who worried he would never attain higher education, he enrolled at John Tyler Community College. He adjusted well to the small classes and thrived because of the personal commitment of the faculty to his well-being. He earned honors at Tyler and currently works in financing while he completes his bachelor's degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For students like Bao, who arrived in the States just six months before enrolling, the community college offers a low-cost opportunity unavailable to him at American universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, community colleges are about half the price of public universities and a whopping 90 percent cheaper than private universities. In 1996, for example, only 6 percent of community college students needed a loan to pay for their education, while 35 percent of university students took on long-term debt. In Virginia you can attend your community college full-time for about $500 a semester where VCU would cost you just over $1,800.

Some folks, otherwise regarded as lost by their high schools, discover at a community college that they are in fact very bright people. Ruth dropped out of high school at age 16. Her GPA was 1.2 and she had just given birth. At John Tyler she graduated with honors, and she served as a lead tutor and the administrative assistant in the Academic Support Center. She has transferred to VCU where she plans to become a physician or a research biologist. That's a long way from our stereotype of the teenage mom, and it's a long way from Ruth's own life at 16.

A recent survey of businesses reported that 95 percent recommend a community college for work-force training. Think of the unprecedented opportunity it affords a student like Richard, an African-American high school dropout who had always worked in food service or low-end retail positions. After losing his job when a mall closed, Richard used his unemployment benefits to take a couple of one-day computer classes at John Tyler. From there he decided to enter an administrative assistant degree program, and now he has a full-time office position in DMV headquarters.

Community colleges are the realization of Jeffersonian democracy, the availability of opportunity that has never existed anywhere in the history of the world. Retirees discover new interests at their community colleges; Ph.D.s acquire new skills or change their career paths; former spouses make new lives; veterans continue their education; and some folks enroll just for the sake of learning something they didn't know or couldn't do.

Sometimes my young students indicate that they are embarrassed to be at a community college instead of what they call "a real college." But it doesn't get any realer than the people I've met, the stories I've witnessed, the successes I've admired. You may not see our stickers on cars or our "Property of" T-shirts around town, but we are building, owning and operating America. And some day, very soon, one of us will be president.

Jan. 22 is designated as Community College Day at the General Assembly.

Patrick Tompkins attended a community college and currently serves as associate professor of English at John Tyler Community College. He's writing a book about community college students.


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