Why go to the UW? I .. A Community College Professor Speaks

Dawg UW AAUPThis post at the AAUP listserv came as part of a lengthy discussion of the role of the community colleges in replacing the first two years of a college education .. the years we hope give students a broad basis for later life.  The reply by Professor Kinsel is worth reading because it shows how the community colleges and the UW play different roles.  The issue for the Uw, in my opinion, is not CC vs UW, but whether we are doing a good job by those kids who choose to come here and pay much more money to interact with working academics but then end up in massive classes that dilute the value of a UW  degree.


If I might offer the perspective of a tenured faculty member at a community college, there is validity in all of the points made here about the challenges and benefits of community college education.

First, for tenured faculty, community college work means teaching a lot, teaching a lot of under-prepared students, and doing a lot of additional department, division, and committee work that leaves absolutely no time for scholarly research. My career path means I do different work than I would have done at a four-year institution. Mostly, I’m content with the work that I do, and I don’t pine for the career that might have been. I know I do important work with the students enrolled at my college. However, I admit that it is very often frustrating and thankless work. And on top of these realities, community college faculty in Washington are significantly underpaid compared to salary levels in comparable states, and we have not received COLAs or promotional raises for seven years. Yet, I keep on.

That’s largely because, despite hard work and low pay, for tenured faculty, teaching at a community college can be extraordinarily rewarding. Students choose to attend community colleges for a number of reasons, but my observation is that the most significant of these are that they are not academically or emotionally prepared to enter a four-year institution, that their personal and work lives are too complicated for them to enroll anywhere as full-time students, or they do not have the financial resources or financial stability to enroll immediately at a four-year institution. I see my role largely as preparing students who are not yet ready, for whatever reason, to attend a four-year institution to succeed once they get there.

My colleagues and I work very hard to maintain academic standards that will allow our transfer students to enroll in upper-division classes at the UW and perform well. Having sent hundreds of students to the UW successfully at this point in my career, I will happily argue that our transfer program provides opportunities for students to earn baccalaureate degrees that would simply have not been possible for them without the access and support provided by community college preparation. The UW will not admit these students as freshmen as they come out of high school for the very good reason that they are not ready for the UW. The UW will admit these students after I have taught them some basis College 101 skills (yes, you do have to show up to class on time and turn in all your work), and, in my discipline, shown them how to read a textbook, how to critically evaluate ideas rather than engage in rote learning, and how to read and write in an academic discipline.

Second, some part-time faculty are able to survive on the exploitative salaries they earn at community colleges and still do just the sort of intensive thoughtful teaching I do. Mostly these fully-engaged part-time faculty have personal reasons for preferring to teach part-time, or they hope to work their way into full-time positions. Among these part-time faculty are advanced graduate students from the UW who are putting in their apprenticeships, as it were, and hoping through their efforts to land one of the increasingly-rare full-time community college teaching positions open in Washington state, or, more likely, parlay their Washington state community-college teaching experience into a higher-paid community college position in another state. (California is hiring and pays starting tenure-track community college professors $25,000 more per year than I currently earn as a mid-career tenured faculty member in Washington.)

On the other hand, some part-time faculty who try to make a full-time living teaching at part-time rates do race from campus to campus cobbling together a poor living with what amounts to piece work. The quality of attention they are able to devote to students necessarily is poorer than the attention students receive from full-time faculty or from part-time faculty who teach part-time because they have career or personal reasons for preferring part-time work.  “Freeway fliers” are not as available for office hours, they are not paid to attend department meetings, they are not as familiar with the policies and procedures at each of the campuses they teach at as they might be, and yet, they must have at least Master’s degrees in their subject areas and they teach the same curriculum as their full-time counterparts. Obviously, this system of exploitation is not good for the exploited faculty and, logically, it must have negative consequences for students. State policymakers jus!
tify the exploitation because the alternative is no access for students. The legislature has not appropriated sufficient funds to increase part-time faculty salaries or hire additional full-time faculty. The choice is part-time faculty exploitation or no classes offered at all.

Third, only about half of the students attending Shoreline identify themselves as transfer students. I teach many students who take my history courses to meet general education requirements for professional-technical degrees or who need history to fulfill high school completion requirements. They get the same U.S. History survey curriculum as students who intend to transfer to the UW (and most of Shoreline’s transfer students do hope to attend the UW). I am happy to teach these students who are not actually very interested in studying history. I am well aware that for most of these students my 100-level U.S. History survey course will be the only college-level history course they ever take. I have the opportunity, in 10 weeks, to share what I love about the discipline, and to try to instill in these one-shot students some understanding of how to think historically and how to be critical listeners and readers of the bad historical analogies, twisted memories, and downright hi!
storical lies that they are likely to run across in their lifetimes as consumers of American social and political media. It’s a big responsibility, and I take is seriously.

The UW is a great institution from which my eldest daughter recently graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in Psychology. She was an academic high achiever at a Seattle public high school, and she thrived as a freshman at the UW. By contrast, the students I see at Shoreline would mostly wallow and flail as freshmen at the UW. The classes would be too big, the remedial support too little, and the requirement that they be self-motivated self-disciplined college students too overwhelming.

The community college role is to provide access to diverse students who for a whole lot of reasons are not going to enroll in a baccalaureate institution. It is not about being better or worse. It is about being the appropriate educational institution for our students. What faculty at community colleges would like to hear from faculty at four-year institutions is respect for the important work we do, and an acknowledgement that while what we do is not what you do, it may be just as necessary for the education of Washington’s citizens.

Many thanks,

Amy Kinsel

Amy J. Kinsel, Ph.D.
President AFT-Local 1950, Shoreline Community College
VP for Legislative Affairs, AFT-Washington
Executive Board, Organization of American Historians
Professor of History, Shoreline Community College

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