Career Center

Community colleges need you

President Barack Obama has given community colleges an assignment for the new decade: Help secure the nation's economic future by educating millions more Americans to be part of a skilled work force.

The administration wants to spend $12 billion on an initiative producing an additional 5 million associate-degree holders by 2020, by improving community college facilities, expanding local job training programs, and making college loans more affordable and accessible.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation incorporating the initiative's main points last year, and the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was expected to consider the bill as gradPSYCH went to press.

The proposal comes at a time when enrollment at public community colleges is already at an all-time high. As of last fall, there were 6.5 million community college students; by 2017, that number is expected to grow to almost 7.1 million.

This unprecedented growth in two-year college enrollment means more job opportunities for doctoral-level psychology teachers and graduate students, say education experts. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts community colleges and vocational schools "are expected to offer some of the best opportunities for postsecondary teachers," according to its 2008–09 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Psychology instructors in particular should benefit since psychology is the second most popular course at community colleges and psychology courses are often required for education, nursing and other degrees.

Flexibility and diversity

One benefit of teaching at a community college is the variety of available schedules. Most community colleges offer day, evening and weekend classes, and they increasingly offer online and hybrid courses. This allows psychologists to teach as well as have their own practices, run other kinds of businesses or spend more time with their families, says Robin Hailstorks, PhD, director of precollege and undergraduate programs for APA's Education Directorate.

In fact, only 33 percent of faculty and instructional staff at two-year colleges are full time, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Other psychology instructors are attracted to community colleges by the diversity of students. According to 2008 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, community colleges have more nontraditional, low-income and minority students than four-year colleges and universities. Many students at these colleges are older, have children and work full time.

Ada Wainwright, PhD, who began teaching at the College of DuPage while finishing her dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says she enjoys the diversity of her students, as well as the small class size that allows her to give personal attention to her students. Previously, as a teaching assistant at Urbana-Champaign, she saw herself almost as a performer, playing to a lecture hall of 300 students. But at DuPage, she's able to get in-depth discussions going with her class of 35 students. "It's the difference between a presentation and an interaction," Wainwright says.

Careers at community colleges

Indeed, teaching, rather than research, is the priority among community college faculty. "Here, teaching is what you need to do well, so you need to know your material and how to convey it to people," says LaDonna Lewis, PhD, chair of the Glendale Community College psychology department.

That's why many new psychologists with a passion for teaching seek positions at community colleges, even though community college professors earn less money than their colleagues at four-year institutions. (The median salary for full-time faculty at two-year colleges is $71,500, while faculty at university-based psychology departments earned a median of $77,739, according to APA's 2009 Salaries in Psychology Survey.)

Be forewarned: Community colleges may not be the institution of first choice if you want a research career, though a handful of psychology professors are engaged in research at community colleges. In addition, community college professors have trouble jumping into positions as four-year college professors, says Lewis. That's mostly because community college faculty don't have the incentives to develop the publication record that universities and colleges expect, she says.

That works both ways, as university faculty who want to transition to community college teaching may have problems, if their teaching has concentrated on upper division or graduate-level courses, Lewis says.

But besides offering flexibility for doctoral-level psychologists, these schools can give psychology doctoral students who already earned a master's valuable experience in teaching, Lewis says.

"It's a great way to earn some money while you're in graduate school and pick up some teaching skills," she says.