• U.S.

Education: Shelves of Learning

4 minute read

It was a typical evening at Triton College outside Chicago. In Technology Center, Instructor Joe Kroc explained measuring instruments to his students in Basic Refrigeration and Air Conditioning 010. Inside a cavernous garage, machines whined and motors roared as a squad of grease-smeared men labored over disassembled cars for Auto Technology 036. And in a classroom in Liberal Arts Hall, students in Philosophy 102 discussed linguistic fallacies.

Triton exemplifies a new type of college that is redefining the concept for many Americans: the public community college. From The Bronx to West Los Angeles, these educational supermarkets are offering their varied shelves of learning to a growing clientele. Enrollment nationwide has more than doubled since 1965, to an estimated 2,689,000 this fall. The students are as diverse as the courses they take. Nine-year-old Triton’s student body of 16,681 (up from 1,243 in 1965 and 13,034 last year) includes housewives, off-duty cops and laborers in their fifties, as well as pert teen-age coeds.

One Out of Ten. Like patrons of regular supermarkets, community college students generally live in the neighborhood. Nearly 90% of Triton’s students come from a 58-sq.-mi. section of Cook County near O’Hare International Airport. An area that includes light and heavy industry, tract homes and old mansions, the district has a population of 422,000, spread among such disparate communities as stately River Forest and working-class Melrose Park.

Local taxpayers provide a third of Triton’s funding (with tuition and state and federal aid making up the balance). For their money, the citizens of district 504 get a college that is everything they never thought a college could be: cheap, accessible and extraordinarily responsive to their specific needs. One out of every ten district residents has taken courses inside Triton’s modern brick-and-glass buildings, which are open from 6:30 in the morning until 10 at night.

Triton’s low tuition ($150 a semester for a full-time student) and closeness to home attract many students in the top ranks of their high school classes, as well as the less able who might find it tough going at other colleges. Triton also attracts adults who are trying to fill gaps in their education. More than half the students attend part time, and many combine their studies with full-time jobs.

There is a course or program to suit virtually every student need and ability. At each level the emphasis is on careers; in fact, Triton calls itself “the Career Center of the Midwest.” Students can get associate degrees or one-year certificates in any of 104 career areas, from advertising art to police science to diesel or welding technology. Even for the 4,000 students in the university-transfer program, the focus is on the practical. An English course in children’s literature, for example, is “recommended for elementary school and library science majors.” Says Joseph Quagliano, a former Playboy Club manager who runs Triton’s restaurant-training school: “There’s no dabbling here. Everyone knows where he’s going.”

Alert, enthusiastic students and a brisk, businesslike atmosphere are part of the appeal for Triton’s hard-working faculty. There are no academic ranks, and all teachers are called “instructor.” The emphasis is on teaching, not research, and only a few of the 834-member faculty boast doctorates; many are working mechanics, cooks or other tradesmen and technicians by day, earning a flat $12 an hour in the evening at Triton.

Up to Date. In each career area, outside advisory committees help the faculty shape programs to keep them up to date. The electronics curriculum recently eliminated study of the vacuum tube and now concentrates on transistors and integrated circuits. When job openings slackened in optical technology and civil engineering, Triton dropped both courses. Among the newest programs: the training of staff for day-care centers.

The faculty prides itself on being able to patch up a student’s background learning. Among the more popular offerings are remedial courses in basic writing and mathematics. “We take lower ability kids, yes,” says Biology Chairman Don Giersch, “but we’re able to instill confidence in a lot that might have bombed out elsewhere right away.” Conversely, through the College Level Examination Program, older students can get credit at Triton for learning acquired outside the classroom.

Many legislators and establishment educators still treat Triton and its ilk like adolescent stepchildren. Although Illinois’ community colleges enroll more than half the students in public higher education in the state, they receive only 13% of the higher-education budget. Similar slights are common across the country. Yet for many students who aspire to being something between ditchdigger and a nuclear physicist, the public community colleges are clearly filling an important void.

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