Reflections on Race

I have fond memories of playing board games as a kid, and when I became a parent, we started playing board games with our kids. While we may have begun with Candy Land when my daughter learned her colors, we eventually progressed to others. One of my favorites as a kid was Guess Who? In the game each player picks a character, and the other player has to try to guess it by asking questions like “Is your person wearing a hat?” I distinctly remember playing the game with my daughter when she was about 5 or 6. As I tried to narrow down the list of possibilities, I asked her “Is your character black?” She responded “No.” and we continued to play. When it got to the end and I made my guess as to who her character was, I discovered I was wrong. How could I be? When I asked who her character was, she showed me.

(Photo courtesy of Hasbro Games)

“Reagan, you said your character wasn’t black.” I said.

“He’s not, Daddy. He’s brown.” she replied.

That’s when it hit me. She didn’t have the same concept of race that I did. She really didn’t know what I meant by “black.” In our home we had never really talked to the kids about race. They knew lots of people, and many were of different racial backgrounds. We didn’t point out that “THIS” person was black or “THAT” person was hispanic. As far as my kids were concerned, they were just people that looked a little different than they did. They certainly had the beauty of innocence, and that game of Guess Who reminded me that I needed to remember to be like them.

My kids didn’t know stereotypes. Yes, they live in a rural part of Virginia which still struggles to step away from its Jim Crow heritage at times. Despite the geography, they haven’t been exposed to racist attitudes in the ways that I was back in the 1980s. I can still remember a much older relative explaining to me how black people were made. “In the Bible,” she said, “after Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Adam was mad at Eve, so he went into the jungle, mated with a gorilla, and that’s how black people were made.” As a kid, I took that information to heart. I didn’t question it, because, after all, I was supposed to respect my elders, and they certainly wouldn’t lie to me. Would they? Black people came from monkeys. Black people were all on welfare. Black people had so many kids because they had sex with their relatives. The list goes on. It wasn’t limited to black people, either. When Chinese people had children, they threw a bunch of silverware into the air, and they named they children based upon the sounds the forks and spoons made when they clinked along the floor. It amazes me even today how these things were shared 30 years ago.

I share that story with my college students when I teach US History. I tie it into the lesson on the Jim Crow era, and how such ignorance was spewed without question. I explain that while I’m not a Biblical Scholar, I know enough about Genesis to know the story I was told is not actually in there. My assumption is that my older relatives parents and grandparents, who were raised at the turn of the century and in the middle of Jim Crow, simply accepted those truths because they had no reason to think otherwise. Thankfully I had parents who, despite the environment, encouraged me to learn, and in doing so, I didn’t accept everything I had been taught as irrefutable fact.

Despite my desire to disregard stereotypes and accept everyone for who they are regardless of race, my implicit biases still exist. A few years ago I was teaching a Dual Enrollment American Politics course at my high school alma mater. In our initial discussion about the class and what was important to the students regarding politics, I had a black student raise his hand. “We need to legalize marijuana and tax it,” he said.

“Great…” I thought. “Here we go again. Another black kid wanting legal pot…” The reality of the situation was that, yes, he was black, and yes, he supported marijuana legalization, but that was something I supported, too. I’m not black, and yet my bias had popped up simply because of a racial difference. I had a preconceived notion of this kid based on his pot statement. As the class progressed through the semester, I learned that he wasn’t just a black kid who supported relaxing drug laws. He was quite intelligent. He was a student in the Chesapeake Bay Governors School program, and he would go on to become valedictorian of his graduating class. In fact, he was the first African-American male to be valedictorian in the school’s history. He certainly proved my initial bias wrong!

Despite my attempts to accept everyone regardless of what they look like, I fully acknowledge that my human imperfections exist, and I do lapse from time to time as I did with my student. Still, I make every effort to be a positive role model for my kids. I may not be able to correct the sins of the past, but I sure can try to prevent them from recurring, and I believe my kids will be the generation to make this world far more beautiful than it is. As a college professor, race isn’t one of my research focuses. Yet, in my history courses, even when discussing Ancient Greece, I discuss the concept of race. It’s an important thing to talk about. Embracing diversity is a good thing, and discussing how we got to things like Jim Crow and Apartheid is important as it can help us prevent going back there.

We need compassion and empathy. I need to accept my privilege and use it for good. In Season 11 of the new series of Doctor Who, the Doctor takes her companions back to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Here they meet Rosa Parks, and they must assist her in maintaining the history, including her famous act of refusing to move to the back of the bus. Despite some historical inaccuracy, it is a sci-fi show, after all, the episode culminates with her refusal. What made the episode interesting, however, was the duo of Graham and his step-grandson Ryan. Graham is an older white gentleman while Ryan is a black millennial. Such a combo certainly did not fit in the American South of the 1950s, but they played their part in the episode. Graham had to take a seat on the bus with Rosa Parks, and he had to remain seated to force history to occur. The expression of the actor, Bradley Walsh, was phenomenal. I could feel his pain in supporting something historically wicked in order to preserve the future.

That episode, and the racial attitudes depicted in it, remind me of the importance of having an open dialog with my kids about their friends. They have a diverse group of friends, and I love that. I don’t know all the things they hear at school, but I want to be sure that they know in our home everyone is welcome. Whereas I may have been criticized for having black friends as a child, they will not be. They will not have to fight their implicit biases the way that I do, because they simply won’t be raised to have them in the first place. That’s something I can control, even if it means I have to lose a game of Guess Who.

Posted in Parenthood, Social Issues | 1 Comment

Dollars & Sense: Why Students Should Avoid Major For-Profits for Associates Degrees

Edit: This post was initially written in spring 2015. It has been updated to reflect current tuition rates for spring 2017.

I recently stumbled across an individual in my online circles who had noted on her resume that she earned an Associate of Arts & Sciences degree from a big name for-profit online university. I couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. On the positive side, the school is regionally accredited, but it certainly comes with a cost. I mean a BIG cost. There are clearly more affordable options, so I am perplexed as to why anyone would choose otherwise.

Upon finding this resume, I decided to do a little digging. As a community college instructor, I know students can earn the same degree at my institution for far less than at an online for-profit school. But what are the numbers? In an age of information, anyone can acquire tuition rates for schools. Because an Associates Degree generally covers the lower level general education courses, they’re all very similar. Yes, there are applied sciences degrees that do differ, but those are not usually designed for transfer. In looking at the good ol’ fashioned bread and butter Associates Degree, one can see that there are certainly affordable options when comparing similar online programs across schools.

Let’s start by examining my home institution. I teach full-time at Rappahannock Community College in Virginia. A quick look at our tuition and fees page shows that tuition for a Virginia resident is $137.75 per credit. With 61 credits in the degree program, that works out to be $8,402.75 in total tuition, not including fees. Since we’re talking about online programs, it’s certainly feasible for an out-of-state student to enroll. Tuition for that individual would be $314.35 per credit, or $19,175.35 for the degree. The out-of-state rate may seem ridiculous compared to the in-state rate, but it is still less than some other schools out there.

The University of Phoenix is the largest provider of online education in the United States. It’s also one of the most expensive. It’s tuition and fees page provides the following data. For the Associate of Arts in General Studies program, tuition is $410 per credit, and at 60 credits, comes to a total of $24,600. As you can see, that’s clearly more expensive than attending a community college as an out-of-state online student.

Kaplan is another major online institution. Like the University of Phoenix, it offers the Associates Degree. The difference with Kaplan, however, is that it uses a quarter credit hour system rather than a semester credit hour system. (A three credit course in a semester system would be equivalent to a 4.5 credit course in a quarter system.) Because of the differences in the credit hours, an Associate degree at Kaplan is 90 credits. According to Kaplan’s tuition and fees page, the degree would cost $33,390, which works out to be $371 per quarter credit hour. Ouch!

It should be noted, however, that not all for-profit schools that provide online instruction are ridiculously expensive. The American Public University System, which divides into American Public University and American Military University, is more friendly to wallets. They offer various Associate Degrees which are $270 per credit. At 61 credits, that’s $16,470. That’s less than the rate of an out-of-state student at my institution and less than half that of Kaplan.

The question still remains, however. Why would anyone enroll in a major online for-profit university for an Associates Degree? That’s why we have community colleges! I can sing the praises of RCC until the cows come home, but we are certainly not the only community college in the country that offers online options. Consider Clovis Community College out of New Mexico. Clovis is one of the most affordable schools in the nation. At $111 per credit hour for an out-of-state student, it’s a logical choice. For a 62 credit degree, the cost would be $6,882. That’s about a sixth of the cost of Kaplan’s degree, and a little more than a fourth of the cost of University of Phoenix. Furthermore, if a student enrolled online at Clovis full-time, the cost would be even less, as 13-18 credits are charged at the same rate as 12 credits.

I still don’t know, and probably never will know, why that individual chose such an expensive school for a degree she could’ve earned elsewhere for far less. Perhaps she got sucked in by advertising. Perhaps she didn’t shop around. What I do know is that there ARE options, and as consumers, we need to be aware of them. If we can shop around for cars, surely we can, and should, do the same for an online degree program. With student loan debt soaring, prospective students need to be aware of their options. Why not pay less?

Posted in Community College, Distance Learning | 2 Comments

Why Choose Community College?

As a professor at a community college, it’s no secret that I have a bias when asked about community colleges. The truth, however, is that during my teenage years I was like many of my peers, in that I thought community colleges were the “back up schools” for kids that didn’t get into a “real” school. My opinions started to change when I got into my junior year of high school. As a part of the school’s Dual Enrollment program, I was enrolled in HIS 121-122 US History in partnership with Rappahannock Community College. As a result of this course, I started to build a college transcript.

During my senior year, I enrolled in ENG 111-112 English Composition through the Dual Enrollment program, and my friend and I decided to take Calculus at the college independently of school. Several of us also took Statistics through the college as a type of independent study class. I crashed and burned on the latter, due to a variety of issues, but I was rather successful with the other courses.

Anyone in high school who is college bound knows that their senior year is THE year in which  students apply for college and find out if they were accepted or rejected. I looked forward to heading off to the College of William and Mary the following year. Imagine my surprise when I was put on the waiting list. Despite being 4th in my class, having a plethora of activities and leadership roles, I got waitlisted. Ouch! At that point I started to consider going to community college, but its stigma had my peers encouraging me to apply elsewhere. I did, and ended up being accepted to Christopher Newport University. As it turned out, getting rejected from W&M turned out to be one of the best things that could’ve happened. CNU, which I had never considered, was definitely the school for me.

Thanks to my participation in community college classes, along with AP Exam scores, I started my journey at CNU classified as a sophomore. I could have finished in 3 years, but instead I decided to take 12 credits per semester to ease myself into the college experience. It turns out that was a great plan.

Now, years later, I’ve graduated from CNU, earned two graduate degrees, and have started a PhD program, all while working as a full-time educator and raising two great kids with my wife. I can only imagine how things might have turned out had I never participated in those community college courses. I can imagine, however, what life today would be like without community college courses.

While community colleges may have a stigma that they are not as good as a four year school, one must remember that stigmas aren’t always true. For many, community college is the only way to go. With tuition increasing each year, community colleges remain a viable option. With Americans readily buying store brand goods and generic drugs, we know that items like Acetaminophen and Tylenol are the same thing. We are willing to buy Acetaminophen because it’s less expensive and does the same thing. So, too, are community college classes. When taking a US History course at a community college, for example, you’ll be learning the same content that you’d be learning at a four year school at a fraction of the cost.

Another benefit of community college is the faculty-student ratios. Perhaps you’ve seen a movie or television show in which a college student goes to class in a large auditorium with hundreds of students in the same class. As a community college professor, I know my students. I know their names. I’ve chatted with them outside of class, in the hallway, over social media. I can write recommendation letters like I’ve known them my whole life. At larger schools in which students might merely be a number, can we say the same?

One of the best things I’ve observed during my time as a community college faculty member is the amount of diversity among the student body, especially when it comes to age. At my college younger students still take up the vast majority of seats, but the number of older students is significant. These individuals represent those who have lived and experienced. Sometimes they’ve even lost. But they often offer valuable advice to their younger colleagues. While the 18 year old kid might enroll because Mommy or Daddy told him to, the 4o year old woman sitting next to him in class might be there because she’s trying to rectify poor decisions from her past or to gain additional credentials to get ahead at work. Whatever the reason, older students often serve as a beacon of light for my younger ones. I’ve seen them on countless occasions explaining how important school is to the youth. I’ve seen them sharing how to take notes and taking the lead on group activities. And I love when they provide their own memories and experiences in class. Hearing a 65 year old African-American woman share her memories of the Civil Rights Movement is far more powerful than anything I can pull out of a textbook.

While it might seem hypocritical of me to push community college when I went straight to a four year school, I’ve learned quite a bit since I graduated high school. After all, aren’t we supposed to reflect on our experiences? Aren’t we supposed to learn from the experiences of others? Community College gives us, gives me, the chance to do that.


Posted in Community College | 3 Comments