Community College Students Become Focus for Smith and Nation

Katherine Hazen '18 Contributing Writer 

President Barack Obama announced his proposal to eliminate two years of tuition for community college students who attend at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.  The proposal, America’s College Promise, coincidentally arrives near the same time as Smith College’s partnership with Holyoke Community College and Greenfield Community College.  Smith launched a scholarship program to provide four full-tuition scholarships to students from these colleges who completed at least 32 credits.

Community college students account for 40 percent of the country’s college students, but according to Dr. Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, about one-third less is spent on the first two years of a community college student’s education, due to the political move toward student loans instead of grants and the relatively low tuition for community college.  Community colleges could mitigate much of the inequality in America, as 44 percent of low-income students attend community college as their first college experience.  The obstacles facing community college students are nearly insurmountable:  Many community college students have a job and a family in addition to their studies.  Further, the national average student-to-guidance counselor ratio is 1:2,000 to 2,500, thus a community college student is bereft of assistance.  81% percent of community college students indicate that they would like to achieve a Bachelor’s degree or more, but only 25 percent transfer to a four-year institution, which could be due in part to that more than 10 percent of community college students lose nearly all of their course credits upon transferring, providing an additional hindrance to the journey toward a Bachelor’s degree.

The concept of free community college is not a new idea; in fact, it was first proposed in 1947 during President Harry Truman’s term.  When Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts took office, he pushed for free community college unsuccessfully.  Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee resuscitated the project last year, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the movement, making city colleges free for Chicago Public School seniors with a 3.0 minimum GPA.   

Obama’s proposal responds to the widening educational gap in job opening prospects, as 35 percent of jobs will require a Bachelor’s degree and 30 percent of jobs will require an Associate’s degree by the year 2020.  The proposal places an onus on community colleges to provide higher quality education, as the school must guarantee that their courses will transfer to a four-year institution or they must provide occupational training programs with high graduation rates.  Participating states would be obligated to pay one-quarter of the student’s tuition and coordinate their public education to reduce the repeated courses.

Smith’s partnership with Holyoke and Greenfield Community Colleges establishes the previously informal relationship between the schools and demonstrates Smith’s outreach efforts in the Pioneer Valley.  Scholarship recipients will benefit from a broad support network including improved academic advising and peer mentoring during their first two semesters at Smith, the most stressful ones for a transfer student.  Kristin Rivers ’16, who transferred from Holyoke Community College this past fall, expressed a disappointment with Smith’s lack of support for transfer students.  Instead, she found that the institution placed emphasis on the first-years’ adjustment to the stress associated with an elite, residential collegiate setting.

“I worked hard to get here, too,” Rivers said. “I am glad Smith is doing this partnership, but I wish there was more that they could do during a transfer’s first semester.”                 

The nation’s new attention toward improving community colleges marks a recognition of the stratification of higher education and the economic and social implications of separating community colleges from the paradigm of the American college.