What “Community” Has to Say about Community College
Earlier this month, I settled in to watch the fourth-season finale of the NBC sitcom Community. At the episode’s airing the threat of cancellation was looming, and I wondered if this would be the last I saw of the lovable characters at Greendale Community College. Watching what could have been the end, I began to reflect on the series, and specifically the pilot episode.
In the series pilot, the dean of the school addresses the students with the question, “What is a community college?” and then attempts to debunk several community college myths, such as being a “loser college” for people who couldn’t handle a four-year school. Unfortunately, he loses one of his notecards and, inevitably, the attention of the crowd. While this monologue serves to set up an introduction to our favorite study group members, I wonder what the dean would have said if he had been able to finish his speech. I would like to think he would say, “Well, you heard wrong! Community college is more than you could ever imagine!” And after reading our newest research report, Women in Community Colleges: Access to Success, I think that’s what he should have said.
Community colleges are an affordable option for student parents like Community’s Shirley who want to improve their education so they can provide for their families. In fact, over 1 million mothers attend community colleges, but only about 50 percent of community colleges offer child care services. Throughout the show, Shirley mentions the constraints of limited child care while she’s in school or working on projects. Imagine how much more time she would have had for her studies if there were an on-campus child care center.
Community colleges are also a good option for young adults who aren’t interested in or ready to attend a four-year university. Characters Annie and Troy both graduated high school and chose this path instead of the “traditional” university route. Another character, Britta, left high school early to travel and gain new life experiences, then enrolled at Greendale once her traveling adventures came to an end. The open-admissions policies at community colleges allow students to try higher education at relatively low costs and low risk, with potentially high returns: many use their two-year degrees as professional training for better-paying careers. Community colleges also help students like Jeff, another character in the show, earn bachelor’s degrees. Jeff returns to higher education because he needs a bachelor’s degree to continue working in his profession. Jeff and other mid-career professionals can use community college to improve their job skills in their current fields, or prepare for new ones.
While the show focuses more on pop culture references and less on the actual workings of a community college, it does show how these institutions provide access to students of all ages, with a variety of goals, and who are often juggling family and work demands. And we aren’t talking about a small group of college students — community colleges enroll 40 percent of all undergraduates today. *Spoiler alert* In the last shot of this season’s finale, the camera pans to a Greendale Community College poster that reads, “Greendale Community College: Your Path to a Brighter Future.” Maybe this comedy isn’t completely fiction after all.