April 22nd, 2007

News: Dream Catchers

Dream Catchers

By John Merrow
Published: April 22, 2007 / New York Times

Matters were simpler 100 years ago, when junior colleges were created to prepare deserving students for the final two years of a university. In fact, the very first public junior college, in Joliet, Ill., was set up in a high school, as the equivalent of grades 13 and 14.

Community colleges today do far more than offer a ladder to the final years. They train the people who repair your furnace, install your plumbing, take your pulse. They prepare retiring baby boomers for second or third careers, and provide opportunities for a growing number of college-age students turning away from the high cost and competition at universities. And charged with doing the heavy remedial lifting, community colleges are now as much 10th and 11th grade as 13th and 14th.

It’s a long to-do list on a tightening public purse. Two-year colleges receive less than 30 percent of state and local financing for higher education, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Yet they are growing much faster than four-year colleges and universities, enrolling nearly half of all undergraduates. That’s 6.6 million students. Add those taking just a course or two, and the total reaches some 12 million.

Kay M. McClenney, director of the annual Community College Survey of Student Engagement, calls America’s two-year colleges “today’s Ellis Island,” because they serve a disproportionate number of immigrants, first-generation citizens and minorities.

While filming a documentary for PBS, “Discounted Dreams: High Hopes and Harsh Realities at America’s Community Colleges,” my colleagues and I visited dozens of classrooms across the country and met with hundreds of students whose stories reveal the possibilities and limitations of community colleges.

Below are four of the students — and the dreams they are chasing.

The wait list for nursing programs can be years long. Brian Bullas ‘won the lottery.’

What ‘Salsa Dancing’ taught a hairstylist, besides rhythm.

Krystal Jenkins failed and failed and failed math, and then failed again.

How to graduate from N.Y.U. (or Amherst or Stanford) at half the cost.

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