In 1993, I was a young Desert Storm veteran with few academic skills. I entered a community college to start an education journey that led to a career as a high school teacher.
I landed a part time job at UPS that offered a consistent work schedule, four hours a day, five days a week. My work schedule enabled me to plan my classes around my job. I was able to get my required classes that allowed me to transfer from community college to a private liberal arts college. I would graduate 3 years later and attend graduate school, earning a Master’s degree and teaching credential.
In theory, President Obama’s policy proposal to offer two free years of community college would mirror the path I took to a professional career. But I was lucky.
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The biggest frustration from many of my former students attending community college is trying to get the classes they need to transfer. The challenge they face is their work schedule changes from week to week.
In the modern economy, a car is almost a necessity. With the costs associated with owning a car, a majority of Community College students must work. Many of the job opportunities today for students are in the retail and service industries. These jobs offer chaotic work schedules with low pay.
An article in CBS MarketWatch titled “In Retail, Life on the Job Often Leads to a Dead End“, published on April 16th, 2013, echoes the challenge facing many community college students across the nation:
“The 22-year-old was studying radiology at New York City College of Technology last year and making $13.50 an hour as a full-time cashier at Juicy Couture, in the women’s apparel maker’s Fifth Avenue store in midtown Manhattan. Then she said the company gave her a choice: Either make herself available to work more, which would require her to quit school, or go part-time, resulting in a big drop in pay. It wasn’t that store managers wanted her to work more hours – they just wanted her to be around in case they needed her.”
One solution that is increasingly more available to students is online classes. An online class offers more flexibility than a traditional brick and mortar class. A class can be taken at any time and from any device plugged into the internet. But even to complete an online class requires some level of structured time to take the course and complete assignments. With an inconsistent work schedule, add the demands of managing a household and family, an online class does not seem to offer much help in the way of addressing the challenge of balancing work and school.
President Obama’s policy proposal to offer two free years of community college would lift a huge financial burden off of students. But his plan, even if it were able to get funded by the Republican-held Congress, would still not help lift the demands of work and everyday life for many community college students. With the service and retail industry offering the majority of job opportunities for the community college student, the challenge to get needed classes to transfer to a four year college, even for free, will mostly remain unmet.