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This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

An Enormous Role

Good luck predicting what might happen in Congress right now. But if President Biden gets his way, the federal government would send tens of billions of dollars to states to make tuition free for students at community colleges.

Our nation’s two-year colleges often get little attention in national conversations about higher ed. And yet they enroll more than one-third of the undergraduates in America.

Their enormous role — and the need for better coverage of them and their students — is one reason we’re so excited to be working this fall with a team of CalMatters reporting fellows who are specifically focused on California Community Colleges.

It’s hard, actually, to really get your head around the scale of that 116-college system. With just over 2 million students, the California Community Colleges account for about 1 in 4 community college students in the nation.

That one system enrolls the same number of undergraduates as all of these groups combined: every Big 10 university (440k), every SEC university (360k), every Ivy League university (68k), every Pac-12 university (324k), every HBCU (300k), plus every type of college or university in the whole state of Virginia (575k).

Stigmas and Stereotypes

The CalMatters fellows we’re working with — who are part of the CalMatters College Journalism Network — are all current students or recent graduates of community colleges there.

We asked them what people get wrong about community colleges and what they want to change about the conversation. 

Above all, the fellows talked about stigmas and stereotypes. People see it as a cheap education, Benjamin Hanson says, and then think a person’s degree shouldn’t be taken as seriously as a degree from a four-year college.

Or, say Emma Hall and Oden Taylor, they don’t think community colleges are worth it or that they have any value other than their low price. There’s this idea, Emma adds, that the community college is where people go when they aren’t smart enough to make it into a Cal State or UC or some private institution. 

“High School 2.0” is what Emily Forschen often hears it called, with people thinking that it somehow lacks “the college experience,” whatever that is.

The fellows talked about the realities they’ve experienced that counter those misperceptions: how their community college prepared them well for professional opportunities and how it gave their classmates a head start, above their four-year college peers, when they transferred to universities.

Uniquely Valuable

Emily, who’s now a student at San Diego State University, says the misperceptions sometimes carry into the student body itself.

She graduated from Las Positas College. “My school’s nickname is Lost Potential,” she says, “and a lot of the students had somewhat of a bummer attitude about the school as a whole.”

But international students saw it differently, and more like she sees it now. One student, for example, didn’t pass the college entrance exam in China but then had the opportunity to try college again at Las Positas.

“If it weren’t for community college,” Emily says, “she would’ve had a very different life. I think then I realized how incredibly, uniquely valuable community colleges are, especially for students seeking change or another chance.”

Elsewhere on Open Campus

As a psychology professor at the U. of Pittsburgh, Jerome Taylor had a personal mission to uplift Black students in a largely white field. Photo: Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource

In Pittsburgh: How can universities improve Black student representation? A Pitt professor offered a blueprint in the 1970s. Jerome Taylor attracted Black students in psychology, a field badly in need of diversification, through mentoring, workshops, and collaboration.

In latitude(s): What it’s like to live as an undocumented student. “I can have all these accolades and awards and a Swathmore College education. But at the end of the day, what people are going to see is that I am undocumented. So I always ask myself, what weighs heavier, a liberal-arts elite education or a green card?”

In Cleveland: Health care certificate programs vary widely in return on investment. Northeast Ohio is a medical mecca, and health care is one of the biggest drivers of the local economy. But a recent analysis of federal data shows that some health care credentials don’t have much, if any, long-term economic payoff for individuals.

In Work Shift: Does college pay off? We dive into the latest research on college ROI, including a study released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In short: what students study matters a lot. (Read more about measuring the returns on college in The Job.)

More from Cleveland: Northeast Ohio community colleges report drops in enrollment. Those who are parents told Cuyahoga Community College officials that uncertainty around their kids’ K-12 school schedules influenced choices they made about their own educations. The strength of the current job market affected things, too.

In California: New program allows incarcerated students to get bachelor’s degrees alongside peers on the outside. Pitzer College started the Inside Out program with the goal of helping incarcerated students better engage with coursework and make connections with the outside world — a key factor in reintegrating back into society.

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus