This is a good time for thinking about higher education in our country, particularly against the backdrop of the faces of the 130 freshmen who filed into my five composition classes last week on the first day of fall semester.

They don't all look like typical college students.

Although many of them graduated from high school only a few months ago and wouldn't be out of place in a college classroom anywhere, many others have been out of school for a few years, and they arrive with complicated and surprising histories that include tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, a house full of children, good jobs and menial jobs, and successful and unsuccessful marriages.

Some are overbearingly confident, and others are thoroughly bewildered in the academic environment in which they find themselves. Some are very smart and write so well that I don't have a lot to teach them. A few are unlikely ever to pass my class or any other college class, in spite of our best efforts. Some of them are dirt-poor, and a few have been in prison.

These are nonresidential college students, many of whom go from classes directly to part-time or full-time jobs, and then go home to face domestic duties. After their kids have gone to bed, they turn to their homework. More than half of them are of Hispanic origin.

Perhaps you've guessed that the college where I teach isn't exactly Harvard. But the faces that range before me in my classes largely reflect the current state of higher education in our country, as well as its future. The fact is, about half of all American college students are enrolled in two-year community colleges like the one where I teach. In some states — California, for example — community-college students outnumber traditional four-year students by as much as 2-to-1.

In short, a surprising amount of American education today takes place in community colleges, not only on the technical and occupational side — health care, airframe maintenance, diesel mechanics — but on the transfer side, as well.

Because of their low cost and accessibility, community colleges are able to provide an entry point to four-year programs for capable students who otherwise would have been overlooked or neglected.

Good things happen at community colleges, but they're hardly an unalloyed success in every respect. Their firm entrenchment in the basement of the ivory tower, without football and fraternities, keeps their profiles low. They are places of considerable achievement, as well as staggering failure. Because they've accepted the challenging task of dealing with all comers, regardless of their level of previous academic achievement, remedial education plays a significant role in their work, dropouts are common and retention is an ongoing concern.

And their work isn't made any easier by the funding philosophies that many states apply to their community colleges. The numbers are complicated, but in Texas, for example, a state that has never been particularly lavish with funding for education, state money for community colleges has diminished drastically over the last several decades, lagging far behind funding for four-year public colleges and universities, even as enrollment in community colleges has outdistanced that in more traditional public institutions.

Community colleges don't get much respect, serving as the occasional butt of jokes or suffering the cruelest condescension of all: invisibility. Nevertheless, in an era when our economy depends more and more on an educated work force that has to be drawn from an ever-broader base of citizens, many of whom have never been welcome in higher education before, it's occasionally worth noting the quiet but expanding role that community colleges play in support of our national educational system.

Well, so noted.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.