Don’t Let Prestige Bias Keep You From Applying to Community Colleges

Young adult or teenage African American male college student is smiling while using a computer in college computer lab. Young man is sitting at desk in a row with diverse classmates. They are wearing casual clothing and looking at computer screens.
Originally Posted On: chronicle.com

Last spring The Chronicle published an advice column on “5 Big-Picture Mistakes New Ph.D.s Make on the Job Market.” Allow me to add No. 6: They don’t consider applying to community colleges.

In that column, the academic-career consultant Karen Kelsky did mention community colleges, noting that different types of institutions “each have their own niche and their own functions.” My goal here, as a faculty member who has worked in the two-year sector for 31 years, is to clarify the niche and function of two-year institutions and offer some reasons why new or newish Ph.D.s should include us in their job search.

After all — let’s be honest — there are compelling reasons not to consider community colleges, from the perspective of a typical doctoral student.

Take the prestige factor, for instance. Most graduate students naturally want to work at the most prestigious institution that will hire them — and their adviser cheers them on in that pursuit. Many advisers go so far as to actively discourage their Ph.D.s from even thinking about applying to a community college, since our institutions are perceived as the red-headed stepchildren of higher education.

Where those graduate students (and their advisers) often err, however, is in their unrealistic expectations about the hiring market.

For about 12 years now, I have been brought in by research universities all over the country to meet with their graduate students and discuss career options at two-year colleges. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a clear correlation between the prestige of the institution and the number of students who attend my talk — but it’s not what you might think. Paradoxically, perhaps, the higher the university is ranked, the larger my crowd is likely to be. At Near Ivy U., I might draw 60 or 70 students (I’ve had as many as 120). It’s as if those students understand that the job market is tight, and they (wisely) want to cover all their bases.

Meanwhile, at Directional State U., I might have only five or six graduate students show up. That’s what I mean by unrealistic expectations. Where do those students think they are going to get teaching jobs? With a doctorate from a regional public university, the very best they can hope for is a teaching job at a similar institution — and even that will be challenging for them, as the professors at many regional universities earned Ph.D.s from large public or private R1’s. That leaves small teaching-oriented institutions and community colleges as the places most likely to hire Ph.D.s from Directional State.

A more likely scenario, these days, is for a new Ph.D. to strike out on the full-time market and instead spend a few years working as an adjunct — probably at a community college. Refusing to entertain the possibility of applying to community colleges only increases that likelihood. Having eliminated from consideration over 30 percent of the U.S. higher-education sector, such candidates have decreased their chances of finding a full-time faculty position by roughly the same margin.

Another reason many graduate students don’t seriously consider community colleges is that they don’t know anything about us. Nor, typically, do their advisers. That’s why I write these career columns, and it’s also why I’m invited to speak, usually by graduate advisers who want their students to know all of their options. Occasionally, the invitation comes from a career center or a graduate-student association, essentially going over the heads of faculty advisers. (Although you might be surprised at the number of career-center directors and graduate-school deans I talk with whose universities provide absolutely zero career programming for graduate students. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t.)

So those are the main reasons why graduate students don’t apply to two-year colleges. Here’s why advisers should be urging Ph.D.s to include us in the mix:

There’s a lot of us. Everyone has a dream job. (Mine is writing headlines for The Onion.) But somewhere between that pleasant daydream and the unemployment line is this thing known as “a job.” Graduate students would do well to focus more on the latter than the former.

It isn’t necessarily easier to get a full-time job at a two-year college than at a four-year institution — it’s just different. But arbitrarily ruling out more than 1,200 potential employers does not strike me as a winning job-search strategy.

Adjuncting counts at our campuses. One of the five “mistakes” that Kelsky’s column cited was believing “adjuncting is a way to get your foot in the door.” No doubt that is true at research institutions and other four-year colleges, but it is definitely false at community colleges. As I’ve noted before, adjuncting is not only a good way to get hired full-time at a community college, it may be the best way, if you don’t get a full-time offer right out of the gate.

Just as research universities are looking for certain qualities in a candidate, so are we. The one we particularly look for: teaching experience. It’s very difficult to get hired full-time at a two-year college without at least a couple years of classroom experience.

Adjuncting is one way to get that experience. And in community-college circles, it’s considered perfectly legit. There’s no stigma. We hire many of our own adjuncts for full-time positions, and many of our full-time faculty members started out as adjuncts. So if you apply to community colleges and don’t get hired on the first go-round, take heart. There’s a decent chance you can adjunct your way into a full-time position, eventually.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to teach here.Accrediting guidelines for faculty members at two-year colleges require only a master’s degree with 18 graduate semester hours in the discipline. While community colleges are hiring more Ph.D.s than we used to, we still hire plenty of people whose terminal graduate degree is a master’s.

Does having a Ph.D. give someone an advantage in our hiring process? Probably. All things being equal between two candidates, the one with the Ph.D. would usually win out. But all things are rarely equal. Most community-college search committees are looking for the best classroom teacher they can find, and that may or may not be the person with the Ph.D.

The pay and benefits are decent. In most states, full-time faculty members at two-year colleges make a little less than our counterparts at regional universities and a little more than high-school teachers — although salaries can vary widely from place to place. Still, our starting salaries aren’t bad — usually in the range of $45,000 to $55,000, depending on the state. Other factors that may affect that number include terminal degree and years of teaching experience.

Our benefits, however — including health insurance and retirement plans — are typically the same as what university professors receive. And in every state I’ve ever worked in (five, so far), those benefits have been excellent.

The work here is less stressful. If you love teaching, that is. A career at a two-year college certainly seems far less anxiety-producing than what I hear and read about faculty life at research universities.

Not all two-year colleges offer tenure (or as it’s called on some campuses, “continuing contract”), but most do. And of those, most require only three to five years of acceptable performance in teaching, service, and professional development in order to earn tenure. At all but a handful of community college nationwide, you don’t have to publish a thing to get tenure. Just do a good job in the classroom, serve on a few committees (well, maybe more than a few, at first), and attend a conference or workshop when you can, and you’ll be fine.

Sure, you can stress if you want to — by expanding your workload to include pursuing a research agenda, trying to write books or articles, getting into administration. But at a community college, you can also choose a quiet, relatively stress-free life of teaching the subject you love. That’s a luxury most of our four-year colleagues don’t have.

It’s a rewarding career. Remember what I said above about us being the red-headed step-children of higher education? Well, that reputation doesn’t bother most of us because, by and large, we love our jobs. They’re not perfect. No job is (except maybe writing headlines for The Onion). But teaching at a community college is both professionally rewarding and psychologically fulfilling. What more can anyone ask of a career?

Yes, we teach a lot — usually five classes a semester. But that’s OK, because we like teaching. No, we don’t get a lot of time or money to write or pursue our research or attend conferences — but we can usually find the resources to do those things if we really want to.

Above all, we love our students, who as a rule are bright, eager, and the opposite of entitled. We have our share of slackers, to be sure, but most of our students are happy to be there. They feel as though they’ve been given a valuable opportunity, which of course they have. But so have we — the opportunity to teach young (and not-so-young) people who, out of all the postsecondary students in the country, probably need us most.

In the end, most of us who teach at community colleges would not trade places with our colleagues at research universities for anything, prestige be damned. Call it the Revenge of the Red-Headed Stepchildren.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College. He writes regularly for The Chronicle’s community-college column. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.

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