Community colleges make a real difference

Published 10:04 pm Thursday, September 12, 2013

By Judge Martin Clark

It’s customary to begin articles about the importance of education with lectures and finger wags and statistics detailing the need for a high-school diploma in the workplace.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and the numbers don’t lie in terms of the relationship between high-school and college training and increased vocational income and opportunity. But as the son of a second-grade teacher, I have a very different take on education, especially reading: It can be a heck of a lot of fun, even entertaining.

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Rather than trying to sell high-school kids on swallowing their sour medicine and slogging through as best they can on the way to a dull diploma or degree, I think there’s a lot to be said for convincing students that education is actually interesting.

I often tell folks that my “job” as a college and high-school student was to sit in my bedroom or a nice library and read the best books ever written, books that transported me all over the world, introduced me to colorful characters, scared me, moved me, intrigued me and usually left me with a new perspective and something worthwhile to consider when I’d turned the last page.

The potential to mix enjoyment and learning isn’t limited to literature, especially when it comes to Virginia’s rural community college system.

One of my neighbor’s kids enrolled in and completed the motorsports technology class at Patrick Henry Community College — he couldn’t believe he was attending school and getting academic credit for something he’d be doing in his garage anyway.

Want to be a chef? A musician? Design computer games? The flexibility of community college can accommodate you, and I think it’s critical that students are given this perspective on education, the idea that we might be able to match your interest and particular skill with a productive job.

Now, for the finger wagging and numbers. As a judge, I can attest that there is a direct correlation between the lack of a high-school diploma and crime. According to a 2008/2012 Pennsylvania study, 41 percent of the state’s inmates did not complete high school, compared to 18 percent of the general population. The same report noted that a 5-percent increase in the male graduation rate would save the state $5 billion in crime-related expenses.

From what I’ve observed in the courtroom, I would argue that these numbers are low. I’d estimate that 75 percent of the people I see headed to prison are high-school dropouts. Common sense suggests the lack of a high-school diploma leads to decreased job opportunities, frustration, idle time, poverty and a loss of self-esteem, the root causes of crime.

Several months ago, sentencing a 30-year-old man for grand larceny, I saw just how pernicious the absence of basic education can be, even in the face of diligence and hard work. This defendant, who dropped out of school without completing the 10th grade, had — despite his educational limitations — been a success at his entry-level position, then received a promotion he really didn’t want but couldn’t turn down without appearing lazy or indifferent.

Unfortunately, he was essentially unable to read, and this was an impediment in his new supervisory job, and despite his best efforts he did poorly and was fired. While this setback didn’t cause him to steal — and doesn’t excuse his theft — it was clearly a contributing factor, the first domino to fall.

I made certain to include the requirement of a GED as a part of his sentence, but as he said at his trial, “I’m pretty much done for the rest of my life because of a choice my parents let me make at 16.”

Let’s all hope fewer and fewer families make this poor choice, and let’s also hope more and more students will recognize there’s a rewarding academic home to be found for many non-traditional interests in Virginia’s community colleges.

Martin Clark is a Circuit Court judge and the bestselling author of three novels. He wrote on behalf of the Rural Horseshoe Initiative of the Virginia Community College System, whose goal is to encourage rural Virginians to finish high school or earn a GED, and then to enroll in a community college to pursue job skills training or an associate degree that could ultimately result in transferring to a four-year college for completion of a bachelor’s degree. For more information, visit www.vccs.edu/Foundation.