Students at Community Colleges Are Getting Younger and Younger

When I started teaching community college, I expected my classes to be made up of older people looking for a "second chance." I was wrong.
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I teach at two community colleges in the Chicago area. I took classes at a community college myself several years ago, and after getting my MFA, I wanted to return to where I’d started--and not simply for a paycheck. I wanted to give back to the institution that opened the doors to higher education for me. So I applied for a position and considered myself lucky to have a job.

All throughout graduate school, in preparation for teaching, I read the works of educators such as UCLA’s Mike Rose, about the magic of community colleges to empower the so-called “non-traditional” student: someone who doesn’t enroll in higher education directly out of secondary school, who falls outside the 18-24 demographic, or has professional or personal obligations that eclipse their academic pursuits. Rose writes that these students are seeking a “second chance.”

According to his 2012 book Back to School, there are over 10 million students in community college with backgrounds as diverse and varying as imaginable. Rose tells the story of Henry, a big man in a wheelchair who had made some mistakes--a gangland encounter left him a paraplegic. Moving back in with his parents and deciding to pursue community college, Henry got to have “what he calls his rebirth.”

With stories like this running through my head, I readied myself, read, and planned to teach to a class full of students deemed “non-traditional.”

The reality of my classroom was far different from what I expected. All four of my first-year composition courses this fall semester were made up, almost entirely, of students directly from high school. In each class, only one or two were veterans or adults over the age of 24. Age and experience-wise, my students are traditional college students.

My experience teaching younger students at community college is not unusual. More and more “traditional” students are attending community college today. One of the schools where I teach, the College of Lake County, has experienced a 30-percent increase in enrollments for students under 24 in the past decade. Traditionally aged students now hold a comfortable majority (almost 60 percent) of the overall student body.

This trend isn’t limited to just where I teach. Research from the American Association of Community Colleges’ Christopher M. Mullin demonstrates that, nationally, community colleges are becoming younger: Between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of community college students ages 18 to 24 went up from 47 percent to 54 percent.

There is also an increasing share of students under the age of 18. In 1993, students under 18 comprised 1.6 percent of all community college students. By 2009, the percentage had increased to seven percent. On one of my first days of class this fall semester, I complimented the new tattoo a student of mine was showing off. The ink was fresh and the skin raw. She thanked me. It was a gift to herself for her 18th birthday.

Community colleges are hosting a younger student body, I suspect, because prospects for graduates of a four-year institution are becoming less and less certain. The transition from high school to university is no longer a sure thing. One problem is the rising cost of college tuition. The average tuition at a state university for 2012-13 was pegged at $22,261. From academic year 2002-03 to 2012-13, tuition increased at public institutions at a rate of 5.2 percent per year. Average student debt topped out at $26,600. Combined with an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, most “traditional” students are facing a very untraditional prospect. Higher education isn’t a guaranteed payout.

The open-enrollment policies of community colleges and their low tuition undoubtedly attract cash-strapped students and families. As of 2011, the average cost of a semester for a full-time student was $2,963. Mullin’s research also finds that most students at community colleges continue to live with their parents despite the affordable tuition. Going to a community college can sometimes be enough, in the case of professional certificates, or it can shave a year or two off the time it takes a student to earn a bachelor’s degree, resulting in significant savings.

In addition, community college students very often work while they’re in school. According to Mullin’s research, 84 percent of community college students are employed with 60 percent of that figure working more than 20 hours a week. Having to divide time between school and work, Mullins says, is rarely associated with what it means to be a traditional student.

Confronting a classroom filled with students not much older than me altered my approach to teaching. I’m only 27. I had been in their spots not long ago, working at the nearby mall. I taught Freytag’s Triangle using the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time. I ditched the tucked-in shirt and tie for t-shirts. I dedicated a whole class just for students to tell me about themselves. I filled my discourse with allusions to video games, comic books, movies, and technology. Profanity was frequent.

This is not dumbing down material for a community college. It is connecting with those sitting across from me, people not that different from me years ago.

If I find myself in a classroom of older adults in the future, I plan to adjust accordingly. It’s the old showbiz maxim: “Know your audience.” All students are non-traditional. They all bring a background and identity unique to themselves.

Often, I claimed to my friends and fiancé, I have to get into character before class. I assumed a role. I became James, the Professor. A colleague of mine, Timothy Moore, (who used Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog to teach pacing and exposition to his students) agrees. The roles we assume are there to bridge the gap between professor and student. We tailor ourselves to our students’ needs.

That’s what a community college can do: Bridge the gap. And that’s what they are, and have been, doing. In uncertain economic times, with university graduates burdened by debt and poor career prospects, community colleges are being, hopefully, recognized as holdouts of outstanding affordable public education that can welcome everyone into the fold.

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James Orbesen is a writer based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Salon, The New Humanism, and Jacobin.

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