Challenging the Stigma of Community College Students & Alumni

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a two-part series on working with community college students and/or alumni.

Samantha E. Lawrence

The word “college” is often connoted with emerging adults attending 4-year universities as “full-time students,” living in dorms, and balancing their course loads with keg parties. Students’ college experiences, however, may differ radically from this trope; our classrooms may be made up of students of a “nontraditional” age, commuters, those who work while going to school, and/or students who attend (or have attended) community colleges. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 38% of undergraduates attended community colleges during the 2016-2017 school year.

Photo of the author of the blog post
Samantha E. Lawrence, M.A., is a Ph.D. student in the department of Human Development and Family Sciences and working on a Graduate Certificate in College Instruction. She has experience teaching research methods in the study of human development as well as infancy through adolescent development courses. Her research examines youths’ experiences of group/identity-based victimization and discrimination, exploring avenues to prevent and mitigate associated mental health consequences.

Whether we teach at community colleges or teach students with community college backgrounds, it’s important to know what perceived stigma our students may have internalized related to community college experiences, as this may relate to self-efficacy and performance in the classroom.

Status—as achieved via titles, salary, and, increasingly, alma mater—is highly valued in American culture. Research assessing perceptions of community colleges, for example, has shown that, although parents interviewed unanimously agreed that community colleges are a “smart” choice for students, they simultaneously felt pressure to send their children to certain “designer label” schools for status reasons, discussing a relation between their own success as a parent and the college their child attends (Lendy, 2009). The ongoing “College-Admissions Scandal,” in which numerous parents utilized bribery to garner admittance for their children into prominent American universities, is one stark example of the lust for status rearing its ugly head in the domain of higher-ed.

Interrelated with the notion of status in higher-education is the rigor of college classes. As one community college graduate who went on to attend a 4-year university put it, “I think community colleges have a lot to offer, but people must properly evaluate such schools [for themselves]…While I enjoyed attending community college at the time, I realized that the education I received was not as rigorous compared to the classes I took at university [and thus] [t]he transition from community college to university can be very difficult for some students.” These differences in rigor may be attributed to the fact that “[t]he types of people in my classes were also different than typically seen in a large university. Many of my classmates were older adults, some that wanted to transition careers, some that already had experience working… and others that were from low-income areas like me.” Thus, these differences in course rigor may be reflective of community college instructors’ recognition and respect of community college students’ life circumstances, including full-time jobs and family commitments.  Acknowledging these factors, instructors may strive to hit home for students the most critical course objectives, filtering out the “busy work.”

Importantly, however, the perception that community college courses differ in difficulty and thoroughness, is not held by all community college graduates. Another community college alum who went on to attend a 4-year university stated that she “…had classes just as rigorous in [community college]. In my experience you found out who the tough, challenging profs were and if you were a student who wanted that you could find it…” Thus, discussion of community college rigor is a nuanced one; the assertion that community colleges are less rigorous as compared to 4-year universities may not hold water, and certainly should not be a supporting point in the argument that community colleges are of less clout—an argument which can contribute to community college students’ and alums’ internalized feelings of inadequacy.

As teachers, we can ease the burden of community college stigma by treating our students as equally valuable and capable of success, taking care not to let stereotypes about community college students taint our teaching practice, while also respecting and accommodating the unique experiences and backgrounds students bring with them into the classroom.

For those who don’t teach at community colleges, a first step in this endeavor is to assess who is in your classroom. Whether by asking students to anonymously describe themselves, including their background in higher-ed (i.e., “Are you a transfer student? If so, what school did you transfer from?”) in a letter to you on the first day of class, or engaging the class in an open, welcoming discussion of the experiences that shape them as a student, we can better understand who we are teaching. Once we know who we are teaching we can tailor our assignments and examples accordingly, encouraging students to consider their prior experiences as assets which can inform their learning and practice. If we want to more explicitly tackle preconceived notions about community college students (or really any marginalized group), we might encourage students to contemplate their biases non-judgmentally (doing the same ourselves), first privately and then in groups. Encouraging open discussion about bias acknowledges that they exist (because they do) and enables instructors and students to discuss ways to break these biases down, in the classroom and in contexts relevant to the course (see “Activities for Building Cultural Competencies in Our Students and Ourselves”; Gomez, 2017).

Community colleges are important institutions that are not going away any time soon. It is therefore critical for us as instructors to acknowledge and accommodate the unique experiences of these students and alums, working to ease bias and promote self-efficacy in our classrooms via inclusive practices.