OPINION

'2+2' college education is here to stay. But recognize commuting isn't the same as immersing oneself in college.

By Michael A. Smith
Special to Gannett Kansas
Michael A. Smith

Even in today’s bitterly divided politics, certain trends still get bipartisan support. A case in point is “2+2” college education.

Advocates believe that most students should enter the university having already completed the first two years at high school or community college, speeding the path to graduation and work. The trend is already well underway.

President Biden referenced the approach in his recent national address, proposing to make community college free. Here in Kansas, the Board of Regents is made up of appointees by Republican and Democratic governors. For years, the Regents have enthusiastically embraced this move with little, if any dissent.

It not only makes college education available to more people, it also boosts the percentage of the population with college degrees, filling needs in our increasingly service-based economy.

I co-chair the political science task force of the Regents’ Transfer and Articulation Council, where we hash out shared outcomes for general education courses to facilitate smooth (and mandated) transfer between all schools in the system.

At Emporia State, I have led or co-led the creation of two graduate certificate programs, certifying high-school teachers to teach “dual enrollment” courses for college credit. I reassure entering transfer students that ESU will take their credits and follow up. I have also been teaching some courses online for a decade, and I helped create several all-online degree programs.

Still, I have my doubts, and so do many of my colleagues.

Two such colleagues have sons starting school here this fall. They will be roommates. Even though they live in town, both professors insisted their kids live on campus so as to have the full, immersive college experience. They will also be going all four years here. I realize not everyone can afford this or has the time, but for those who are able, this is a good call.

College is so much more than coursework and transfer credits. It is late-night talking sessions at the coffeehouse, poetry readings at the bookstore and live music. It is lifelong friendships and stumbling upon a book or lecture that looks interesting. It is taking a class just because.

Apple founder Steve Jobs never graduated from Reed College (my alma mater), but he found the time he spent attending classes there to be transformative, for example, crediting his calligraphy course for inspiring Apple’s creative, high-resolution fonts that transformed the user’s computing experience.

Sadly, the technology Jobs helped develop is now part of the problem. Lost in their screens, many of our community college transfers come to ESU without having made a single in-person friendship since high school. Too many would drive to school, park, attend class, drive home. That is commuting not college.

At home, those from less-than-functional families easily get sucked into family drama, distracting them from building their futures.

High school students and their parents tell me harrowing stories about loads of homework, bringing stress, sleep deprivation and a sacrifice of life-changing extracurricular activities, such as sports, drama and debate.

Two plus two is here to stay. Yet as the pandemic wanes, we must bring back the biggest benefits of college — the face-to-face friendships, the creativity and exploration, the opportunity to discover oneself.

Community colleges need to make these experiences available, too, and four-year college shouldn't become a rare privilege.