Who are community college students?

Certainly we see students from across the continuum — from students who are not “college ready” to those who could’ve attended the top universities but chose the local community college for a variety of reasons.  As open admission institutions whose very mission is about access to higher education, we welcome all students.  And we should continue to welcome all students.

But, generally our students fall into three buckets:

(1) gritty, determined students;

(2) fearful, unbelieving students; and

(3) confident, coddled students.

If you work in a community college, you probably know each of the students described below:

Sandy* is a full-time student with a 4.0 grade point average. She attends school full-time, is a single mother to a 3-year daughter, and works 20-hours per week to supplement her financial aid package. Sandy also volunteers for a student life organization dedicated to helping young women achieve success. She is majoring in nursing because she wants to take care of people and she knows the career path will ensure a good life for her daughter. She plans to graduate with honors next semester, but she has already researched scholarships to fund her BSN degree. Sandy knows that the rest of her college journey will be difficult, but she is also convinced that no challenge will prove too difficult for her to overcome.

Bryan* is a part-time student in his first semester of college. He is a first-generation student who struggled to graduate from high school. He considered dropping out because his grades were poor and he didn’t have anyone in his life encouraging him to pursue college. His high school counselor recommended the community college once, but Bryan didn’t believe that was a viable option because college was never a priority in his family. After spending a couple of years in dead-end, low-paying jobs he decided that maybe he would give the local community college a try. However, he is skeptical that he would be successful. He is afraid that by going to college it will confirm his belief that he isn’t very smart, after all, he had to take developmental math and English. After attending for a few weeks, Bryan decided to drop out. His grades on his first exam confirmed his fear – college really was not for him.

Scott* is a full-time student taking a smattering of courses that appeal to him, but he doesn’t have any real direction and isn’t interested in a particular pathway. Scott received B’s and C’s in high school but he didn’t really put forth any effort, and he was not motivated to achieve A’s. He was involved in several different sports and extracurricular activities. Although he was not exceptional at any one sport, he did receive a lot of praise, awards and recognition for being on the team. Scott’s parents were his biggest fans – always telling him that he was smart and capable. Scott chose to attend the local community college to save his family some money. He figured it would be a “blow off” year where he could complete some core classes to transfer to a university. Scott was surprised when his mid-semester grades reflected he was failing College Algebra, Composition I, and Government. He did well in these classes in high school, so he had his mother contact the President’s office to complain about the college and the faculty members.

Sandy, Bryan and Scott represent three types of students so often seen in American community colleges. Within community colleges are some of the most determined, resilient and persistent students who have incredibly complex lives. Yet they still succeed. There are also students who may have never had a positive academic experience in their entire life. They have faced additional challenges and struggles, but yet they never seem to be able to quite overcome them. They live a life of hard knocks and generally stay down, never rising to the challenges. And, then there are those students who performed well in high school, who seem to have a bright future with lots of family support. Yet they are ill equipped to deal with challenges of daily living, and when life does get hard are incapable of accepting responsibility for the consequences.

What differentiates these three students? What enables Sandy to successfully juggle multiple competing priorities, pursue her dreams and persist through the challenges?

I believe a key difference is the right kind of GRIT.

*Names and profiles are fictional.