You can’t work in education without being political

Let’s be very clear about this. The American educational system — mandatory universal K-12 education, funded by taxes, with government-run colleges and universities — is probably the single most successful progressive program in the nation’s history. Not only is universal public education effective at creating smarter people, it’s universal. Education is a government-run program that intrudes on everyone’s life, from a very young age, without regard to personal belief or family structure or social tradition.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. It’s really, really not. But the concept and execution are progressive to the core.

Which is why far-right nutjobs always try to defund it and privatize it. Not because of actual failures in the educational system, but because it’s a big ol’ government program that achieves some semblance of its goals. It’s not about budgets, and it’s not about test scores. The reason my college is woefully underfunded, and the reason my local school district produces such weak graduates for my woefully underfunded college to try and help, is that far-right nutjobs hate to see government programs working at all.


Sportsball update

Ruck came in yesterday. And we made some progress. He dropped/failed his fall semester, not surprisingly, but he wants to try again. This time he’s realistic about how much he can get done while working a full-time job. After some cordial interrogation, he also talked about what kind of major he wants to pursue and where he might want to go when SLAC #2 is done with him.

I don’t get a lot of happy endings — and this is neither an ending nor particularly happy. But it’s progress. I’ll take progress any day.


Like a lot of community colleges, we don’t have any “real” sports. Some intramurals, some intraschool clubs, but nothing that has a mascot or a fan base or even a guaranteed presence from one semester to the next. I like that. Athletics are just another extracurricular to us. A few students choose to do them for fun, and the rest of the school goes on its merry way without being affected. Sports don’t deform the academic landscape around here.

Sometimes other schools’ athletic programs do crash through the walls and land on my desk, though. It just happened twice in one day. The first time was a phone call from a coach at SLAC #1, about an hour away. He worked here once and he knows how we run things; Coach was looking for a short-term class that he could put an athlete in so that the athlete could maintain eligibility. We had a few choices thanks to an arrangement with SLAC #2, a school that’s targeting working adults who can do month-long courses. I rattled off a list of options for Coach and asked “What are the student’s academic strong suits?”

“He doesn’t have any,” said Coach. No preamble, no explanations, no consideration of how these classes will affect (or be affected by) the student. He did try to open a discussion of which class would be easiest to pass, though.

Yessir, I’m full of faith that SLAC #1 is looking out for their student-athletes.

Later that afternoon I sat down with one of our own students — call him Ruck — who I met at his orientation this fall. Ruck started late, with the implication that he was failing out of another school. Even though he works full-time, and even though the only courses available were accelerated ones, Ruck insisted that he had to have at least 12 credits. Why, I asked? Because he’s being recruited by SLAC #2, ironically enough, but they’ll only take him if he can get through one full-time semester somewhere and keep at least a B average.

We ended up giving Ruck what he wanted over my objections.

Ruck came back to see me a couple weeks ago. He still hadn’t gotten books for any of his classes, he’s failing at least half of them, and he wanted me to put in a good word with his instructors. We had a frank talk instead. He left unhappy and hasn’t come to any of his follow-up appointments.

Through this, I have yet to learn what Ruck wants to major in or what his post-college goals are. He doesn’t talk about that. He might not have any goals beyond playing sportsball at SLAC #2. Again, who’s looking out for him?

Students vs. Legalese

At some point in my checkered past, I worked in a financial aid office. Most of my colleagues had backgrounds in business, finance, or accounting. I’m from the social science/humanities side. We spoke very different languages.

Perhaps coincidentally, I ended up being the primary point of contact for a lot of the students who wanted financial aid help. And even today, after I left that world behind, students (and staff) seek me out to explain things. Why don’t they go to the actual financial aid specialists? “They’re not helpful.” “I tried but they were rude to me.” “Every time I asked a question, they kept repeating the same confusing thing.” “They treated me like I was stupid.”

So I was very interested in this Chronicle article about a financial aid office that’s actually trying to communicate in a way that students can easily understand.

And then I was annoyed by some of the comments from uptight FA administrators who clearly don’t care about students’ experiences.

This turned into more of a rant than I anticipated

I’m involved with the honors program on our campus. Yes, some community colleges have honors programs. Our best students are as good as the best students anywhere.

Of course, the college has no admission requirements. We have to accept everyone who wants to attend here. So our weakest students can be orders of magnitude below the cutoff points established by our four-year brethren. People outside the community college sphere often seem unaware of our open admissions — and they’re certainly not thinking about the consequences. Allow me to illustrate…

Our honors program is run by volunteers from the college faculty and staff. It has no set curriculum, no dedicated support beyond a single three-credit release every semester, and its annual budget is a few thousand dollars. Better than nothing? Sure. I’ve seen “nothing” as an operating philosophy. But it’s hard for our top-tier students to see why they’d bother getting involved.

Our remedial/developmental/etc. programming has its own dean, half-a-dozen full time faculty, several times that many adjuncts, dedicated classroom space, dedicated office space, a person devoted entirely to retention efforts… it’s an entire academic division. And for good reason. Like most community colleges, we draw a lot of students who are unprepared for what the world considers college-level work. Without this extensive support system, many of them would sink below the surface and never be seen again.

But it points out a huge cultural problem. If you lavish care and resources on helping people reach the minimum acceptable standard, and you treat the people who excel as an afterthought, what are you saying? Because it’s not a subtle message.

People have this idea that it’s okay to ignore the high-performing students, on the grounds that those students are smart enough to figure things out for themselves. They are. For example, they can figure out that you don’t think they’re important enough to support, and that you aren’t willing to put resources toward helping them become the best they can be. As long as that’s our approach, community college isn’t living up to the “college” part of its title. Every student should get the necessary resources to improve themselves. Even the smart ones.