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April 14, 2014

Pam Eddinger has been president at Bunker Hill Community College for almost eight months. (Richard Howard/The Boston Foundation)

When the media talks about colleges and universities during this admissions season, visions of tree-lined quads at four-year liberal arts institutions may come to mind. But the truth is that almost half of undergraduate students in the United States actually go to community college.

Pam Eddinger is the president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where 14,000 students are working towards certificates or degrees.

On Campus recently talked to Eddinger about the unique role community colleges play.

CARAPEZZA: What first drew you to the community college scene?

EDDINGER: Having been in this business awhile, I realized that almost all of my colleagues at one time or another gets bitten by the community college bug. I got bitten by that bug when I first stepped foot onto the Mass Bay campus. My job was to tell the story of community college students, and once you tell that story you never get to get away. Sort of infected by that need to help. 

CARAPEZZA: Do you think that story is lost? Because media constantly talks about higher education, I think images of a four-year college experience comes to mind. But the numbers show the vast majority of students access higher education through community and state colleges.

EDDINGER: Actually, a little under 50 percent of all undergraduates in the United States are at community colleges. So community colleges is right now to me, I don't think we're a kept secret any more. But there is always a sense of "Well can i transfer? Is it possible to get to that four year?" And my sense is the better you do here, the better you do at a community college, the more successful you are at a four-year.

Native students at a four-year college do equivalent to what our community college graduates do, the success rate is equal. And sometimes community college students do better, because they have that commitment. So yeah, the best deal still and really the best way for us to maintain the middle class that we have now.

CARAPEZZA: As a college president, how do you prepare for when people are trying to put a value, or a sticker price, on an education?

EDDINGER: I think I always tell parents, or students who are paying on their own, to take the long view. It may make sense for you to get that $10 an hour job now because you have immediate needs. But the idea is to really plan beyond that. If you don't have the education, you will never get beyond the $10 an hour job. And what are you going to do when you have a family, with that $10 an hour? No minimum wage is going to bring you to a point where your family and your children are going to be helped. 

CARAPEZZA: Community colleges are playing an especially important role in this national debate about the value of higher education -- and ensuring that we are educating enough people and providing high-quality, affordable education. I'm wondering, what's it like to run one of the institutions that's really at the center of this debate? 

EDDINGER: It is inspiring. And running an institution like this is humbling. And everybody will tell you that it's humbling because our students are hardworking, and they're succeeding. I'm humbled by the fact that it takes such great courage for our students to step through that door. They have family, some of them have to scrape up enough money to ride the train, some of them are hungry, some of them are new to the country and they don't speak the language. Yet they come through that door every single day. That's the resilience that's going to save America, and it's here. 

On Thursday, On Campus will take a closer look at the quality of teaching at community colleges, where a majority of classes are now taught by adjunct, part-time professors.

confronting cost, community colleges, increasing access and success, bunker hill community college

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