Almost a decade ago, I was nearing completion of my master’s degree in higher education administration. Like most students facing an exit from college and into the career world, I was panicked about finding a job in my field. I can recall experiencing a collective panic as our graduate school cohort flooded the national market with fresh resumes and swapped battlefield stories about on-campus interviews.
I had two on-campus interviews scheduled in one week. One was for a position much higher than I thought I could land fresh out of graduate school, situated within the Career Services office at a large, rival public four-year university. I thought I was a perfect fit for the position, as I had just completed a two-year internship at a local higher education non-profit focused on internship program development and had built a friendly rapport with the hiring director.
The second interview was for an academic advisor position at a regional campus within the university system that would soon be granting my master’s degree. The position was posted for the 11:00 AM- 7:00 PM shift, which immediately placed it at the bottom of my list. In addition to the awful schedule, I could not picture myself working at a commuter campus. As an undergraduate, I had experienced what I thought all college students should experience: two years in an on-campus residence hall, followed by two years living among friends in a dark and dingy townhouse in the neighborhood known for great parties every Thursday night.
I poured all of my energy into preparing my presentation and interview responses for the career services position, convinced I belonged in the type of environment from which I had been educated. To prepare for the regional campus position (which I had convinced myself I would only take out of desperation), I compiled a quick presentation and barely reviewed the job description.
In an unexpected twist of fate, I did not feel an immediate sense of belonging while interviewing for the career services position at the rival four-year university. I left the interview not entirely sure what had made me feel this way and questioning whether or not the position was actually where I wanted to begin my career.
The next day, somewhat unprepared and rather apathetically, I showed up to interview for the academic advisor position at the regional commuter campus. Even as I entered the building, I was sure I would never accept a job offer for this position: I was simply a soon-to-be graduate practicing her interview skills.
For those of you who have read the short bio attached to this column, you already know how this story ends. Within the first 20 minutes of my interview that day, everything I thought I knew about open-access higher education was turned upside down. I fell in love with the possibility of working at a college campus without residence halls or high admission standards, and with a commuter population. The interview felt completely right, and the team I later joined upon accepting the job offer remains the most significant influence on my career to date.
My 11:00-7:00 shift ended several months later when the department hired another wave of advisors, and I moved to the earlier shift due to seniority; however, despite the less-than-ideal schedule, I never for a moment regretted taking my first professional step onto a regional campus that offers access to so many students.
Whatever misconceptions you might have about the landscape and environment of open-access colleges, put them aside for a moment. If you have only ever imagined yourself working at a traditional four-year institution, try to remember the primary reason you were drawn to a career in higher education in the first place.
Chances are, that reason may be fulfilled in a whole new way by a community college, regional campus, or technical college experience.
Growth in the Two-Year Sector
While many four-year colleges and universities have been experiencing a decline in enrollment, two-year colleges and regional campuses are offering students an alternative to the traditional post-secondary path. As residential colleges add amenities such as renovated residence halls, spacious wellness centers, and infinite food options, many students and their families have begun to search for simpler, less expensive alternatives.
The community college landscape is changing as traditional students, some with the means and academic ability to thrive at premier institutions, select to begin their education on a flexible and less-expensive path. With media coverage on rising student loan debt and the crippling effect such debt has on recent college graduates, many opt to return to alternative options that either decrease or eliminate long-term financial obligations. Within an academic advising unit, my team and I regularly encounter students who pay tuition out-of-pocket in an effort to earn a credential without debt. The two-year environment makes this choice accessible to a larger net of students, not just those from the highest socioeconomic rungs.
National Public Radio (NPR) features a series titled “Paying for College,” and a May 2014 installment focused on the number of students accepted to their first choice colleges who select to attend alternative institutions. The feature highlighted the 2013 National Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles. While the survey results reflected a positive trend related to the number of students both applying and receiving acceptance to colleges, they are offset by the percentage of students who ultimately do not enroll at their first choice institutions. When surveyed, the majority of students indicated that cost was the primary reason for declining offers to attend their first choice institutions (61.2%). In addition, 60% of first-generation college students stated cost or financial aid offers as a primary concern when selecting a college, compared to 46% of continuing generation students asked the same question. Community colleges by their very nature are an obvious choice for many first-generation college students, and this survey indicates that overall cost is a large concern for many students, regardless of background.
While cost is obviously an important factor for many students, students still need to consider whether or not a two-year college can deliver a quality product that will provide a return on investment. As partnerships and pathways between two-year colleges, regional campuses, and four-year universities become stronger and more defined, students are presented with more options to build and complete their educational experiences. For example, the community college at which I currently work has established formal partnerships with eight major colleges and universities in the state, many of which begin to meet with our students within their first year of their associate degree curriculum. Some partners have become such a regular presence on our campus that students are often more connected to university advisors, admissions representatives, and student life professionals than the students who began at the four-year institution from day one. These strong pathways help students see how their community college education can lead to advanced degrees without the burden of shopping for completion programs on their own after graduation day.
A Shift towards Technical and Applied Education
The regional campus where I first worked as a professional academic advisor was situated on a shared campus. Our campus neighbor was a technical college, and students regularly moved between the institutions due to physical proximity and career indecision.
When the local economy took a downturn, both institutions saw an influx of unemployed individuals seeking alternative career paths. As state and local programs emerged to assist displaced workers, many recipients came through our doors seeking baccalaureate degrees; however, when faced with four- to five-year education plans, many ultimately determined that a technical associate’s degree from our neighboring institution may be a better option in order to quickly retool in a new field and return to the workforce.
This mentality may still be lingering, and perhaps even increasing, as securing employment immediately following a bachelor’s degree still proves competitive and often challenging. Technical associate’s degrees offered by community colleges, on the other hand, are often already linked with employers, in order to serve local workforce development needs. For example, the community college at which I am currently employed has several degree programs that were created at the demand of major area employers who are in need of graduates with technical expertise in areas such as mechanical engineering, surgical sterilization, insurance, and computer science. Likewise, the community college also provides direct pathways to meaningful employment in the public sector through partnerships with local fire, emergency response, and police academy training. At our community college, Commencement Day is filled with stories of graduates who are walking into lucrative employment positions paying close to or equal to those secured by university graduates who have yet to gain technical experience and expertise.
Unfortunately, many high school students still receive societal pressure to complete college preparatory coursework and pursue bachelor’s degrees upon graduation. Career and technical training provides a strong and viable option, however, and delivers promising returns for high school students. In Ohio, for example, only 22% of students grades 9-12 are enrolled in career and technical training programs; however, these students boast a 98% high school graduation rate with over 60% opting to further their education past high school. Many of these programs are perhaps even more challenging than traditional secondary school curriculum, often including between 450-900 hours of applied training in key workforce areas (Ohio Department of Education, 2014).
As states work to address employment needs, high school graduation rates, and degree attainment numbers, technical education programs and their community college partners hold covetable seats at the discussion table.
Professionally Challenging Environment
Open-access education environments, such as regional campuses and community colleges, present unique challenges for student affairs professionals and faculty who work to meet state and federal student success and completion standards. While selective institutions can adjust admissions criteria to yield those most likely to meet their academic standards, this practice defies the very mission of this country’s community colleges and regional campuses. Today’s community college population includes many academically prepared students; yet, open access draws a significant population of underprepared individuals as well.
As a leader working on student success initiatives, this population challenges me when adopting even the most accepted best practices in the field. Nearly every research article, conference presentation, and listserv topic must be analyzed further with questions like, “How would this apply to a curriculum condensed to two years?” or, “How would this look in an environment that accepts all, regardless of academic record?” While education, by its very nature, demands continuous learning, the community college environment energizes this learning in a whole new way.
For individuals who are passionate about making a difference in students’ lives, professional positions within community colleges will not disappoint. All student interactions are unique, and student backgrounds are diverse, which continually reinforces a commitment to the work and mission of the college.
Perhaps one of the most powerful ongoing lessons I have learned through working in this sector of education is compassion and the subsequent ability to avoid judgment. The student populations with whom I interact have challenged me to eliminate subconscious biases and truly listen to each student’s story. While fast-paced environments often promote a problem/solution approach to service, this model cannot apply to a population that reflects such a breadth of needs.
Likewise, each student has a very different reason for being present at the college, most of which are not apparent at first impression. My assumptions about students’ backgrounds, educational history, previous degree attainment, and socioeconomic status are proven incorrect so often that I have simply eliminated assumption from my practice and focused solely on listening to students’ individual stories. Without this daily challenge, and at such a rich and intense level, this type of mental training would take nearly a lifetime to fully develop.
Many myths, and perhaps some truths, about two-year colleges remain prevalent in our field. I believe nearly every sector of the working world, as in society as a whole, holds biases about certain work environments, organizations, or professional affiliations. We all hold misconceptions about what impact certain career choices may have on our professional, financial, or personal goals. In challenging these biases and examining our own values as educators, we may either confirm or question where our personal energy is being spent.
Working at a two-year institution has helped me to truly “walk the talk” as an educator. Early on and perhaps rather unconsciously throughout my profession training, I developed the belief that any individual can be elevated through education, and that one’s circumstances are always within a few steps of change. Upon examining our education and workforce needs, I also believe there is space in society for all individuals to grow to their fullest potential and give back, contribute, and thrive. Working in an environment that meets students where they are academically, economically, and socially helps to feed the passion that led me to become an educator in the first place.
I encourage you to imagine yourself working in the two-year college environment and challenge the voice in your head that pushes you to pursue employment at other institutions. Take the time to examine the philosophies that drive your work in this field and also the biases that may keep you from responding to the challenge of open access.
Many of us love this work, and we are always looking for the best and brightest to join us on the path less traveled.
Would you be up for both the challenge and the reward?
- What are some of the biases associated with working at a two-year college or regional campus?
- Do you ever work with students who you feel would succeed in a career or technical program? How do you work with these students? Do you believe any biases exist about career and technical education?
- Many students focus on cost when considering options for college. Do you believe cost should play a role in students’ decision if they are accepted to a first-choice college? Why or why not?
- What excites you about the possibility of working at a two-year college? What do you perceive as your personal challenges in doing so? How does the mission of open-access align with your beliefs about education?
Eagan, K., Lozano, J., Hurtado, S., & Case, M. (2014, February 1). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2013. . Retrieved May 29, 2014, from http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2013.pdf
Ohio Department of Education. (2014). Preparing Students for College and Careers. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from http://www.ohioacte.org/Resources/Documents/Legislative/ODECTEFactSheet.pdf
About the Author
Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.
Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.