Community colleges changes lives

During my 33 years in higher education, I have had the opportunity to work at community colleges, a four-year public institution and a four-year private institution. I have been proud of each of them; but I can say without hesitation that community colleges, like Fulton-Montgomery Community College, change lives more than any other type of educational institution.

I’ve seen it. Four-year institutions admit students who meet certain entrance requirements. So from the very beginning, four-year institutions are selecting students that they believe will be successful at their college. (Even then, public higher education institutions have about a 55 percent graduation rate.) While there are support services at four-year institutions to help students with their studies, there is a much greater sense that the student is on his/her own to complete the work or not.

Community colleges have an open admission policy. That does not mean that the college work is unchallenging or that graduating is easier. It means that community colleges are colleges of opportunity. They accept students where they are in their educational journey and provide the resources for students to be successful. Completing the work is up to each student. However, there is a great deal of encouragement and support along the way.

Community colleges see students from a variety of backgrounds, with diverse academic abilities and from a wide range of socio-economic means. While four-year institutions may see some students from these backgrounds, clearly not in the numbers seen at community colleges. My point here is that students selected by four-year institutions are often more prepared for college academically, financially and socially. More often, they have parents who attended college and many of these students would likely be successful at any college they attended.

At community colleges, we also have students who would be successful anywhere. However, we see many students for whom, often due to life circumstances, a community college is their only hope for success. It is these students to which I refer that community colleges change lives. I have seen students who struggled through high school but get to our campus and flourish. I have seen students whose parents have alcohol and drug problems and the community colleges is their path to a better life. I’ve seen students who discover their passion on our campus and turn their lives from a downward spiral to an upward trajectory.

At the end of each academic year we have several celebrations on campus for students who are graduating. During these celebrations, students often tell their stories regarding some of the challenges they have had to face while trying to get a degree. You cannot help but shed a tear for some of these students out of empathy and pride as they accept their certificates and diplomas.

Community colleges see students with strong academic skills and those for whom academics has been a struggle. This diverse population creates and environment where students can see others, like themselves, with similar ambitions and struggles. They often learn that even those whom they thought had it easy, often faced challenges as well. FM lifts all of them to new heights and puts them on a path to success. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to touch the lives of so many, for such good.

This article was written by Dustin Swanger, Ed.D., president of Fulton-Montgomery Community College.