Last week, Tom Hanks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about his positive experiences at Chabot College (in support of Obama’s proposal to offer two free years of community college for all students). Chabot is in my college’s district, so of course everyone was really excited. Hanks talked about the specific lessons he learned from his instructors, the classes he loved and those he hated, and how community college gave him the opportunities to do the same things students at more expensive, prestigious universities did: study, learn, goof off, explore, and find temporary and life-long passions. One of the most interesting parts to me was that he called Chabot “my alma mater” and told his children, “That place made me what I am today.” After Chabot, he transferred to Sacramento State, but never completed a degree: “After a year there I moved on, enrolling in a little thing called the School of Hard Knocks, a.k.a. Life.” The last course of schoolwork he completed, evidently, was at Chabot College.
Hanks wouldn’t be considered a failure, I don’t think, for ultimately dropping out of college. And yet, in the last few years of lean budgets, the California community colleges have cut their funding for people who don’t want to get a degree or certificate but just want to take some classes. The state can’t afford to pay for retired people to take art classes or for confused eighteen-year-olds to try out a bunch of different majors before one sticks. My college’s mission used to have the words “lifelong learning” in it; now they are gone, replaced by the word “completion.”
One of my favorite aspects of community colleges, one of the reasons I chose to teach in one, was the way they served as a resource for all the community’s educational needs, whether they added up to a degree or not. If community colleges gain funding through Obama’s plan, I hope some of it can go not just to the students trying to complete their degrees, but also those who just want to drop in and learn a few things.