Well, it’s over. For 73 years a Chalberg has been associated with the two-year school movement in Minnesota. That’s now at an end. And, yes, it once was a movement, even if it hasn’t been for quite a while.
Part of the movement idea was embedded in the original designation of “junior college.” And a perfectly reasonable and accurate descriptor that was. It’s long since given way to “community college.”
Whether junior or community, full-fledged colleges they are not. Nor have they previously pretended to be — or aspired to become. And yet the pretense is increasingly there. In all kinds of ways and for all sorts of reasons, “community” is gradually being jettisoned.
Quicker and easier — and more pretentious — though it may be, something gets lost in the transition to just plain “college.” Part of that something is the idea of a movement to offer lower-division college courses to primarily first-generation college students whose families could not afford to pay the going rate for a four-year residential college. And that was at a time when the “going rate” was a pittance compared to today.
My father was one of the pioneers of this movement in Minnesota. He was also a community leader. I am neither. It’s always been the classroom for me, whether actual or, more recently, virtual.
I can say with both pride and assurance that my father did a good job. Did I? It’s hard to know. The teaching process was a mystery to me when I began; it remains a mystery to me as I depart. I certainly tried to interfere in the lives and minds of my students. Of course, I wanted them to do well. Of course, I felt an obligation to them. But I also felt an obligation to the discipline of history. And sometimes those duties collided.
As I look back on it all, I find myself asking another question to which I have no answer: How many students truly take advantage of what our two-year colleges have to offer?
What do I mean by truly taking advantage? I can only answer with another question: Do they make education a priority? Years ago a dean speculated out loud to me that for most of our students, school ranked third, behind work and social life, on their list of priorities.
Given that likely reality, was it a mistake for the state to fund and institutionalize what began as a grass-roots, even populist idea, a project initially undertaken by local school boards across the state? No. The two-year college was a bargain three-quarters of a century ago, and, relatively speaking, it remains that today.
And tomorrow? Some day in the not-too-distant future the education bubble will burst. A futurist I am not, but of that much I am quite certain. I’m also of a mind to suggest that such a bursting will eventually prove to be a good thing for the country at large, as well as for students and their families.
In addition, it will be an especially good thing for the two-year college, which was never overpriced in the first place and has not been seriously overextended along the way.
The two-year college will not only survive, but may well flourish — and in ways that are reminiscent of its original movement spirit. Its success will likely depend upon the work of a new generation of pioneers. I was not that. Instead, I simply benefited from the spadework of others — and from what I expect will be looked back upon as the flush years of a bygone time.
In all likelihood, genuinely tough times are ahead for higher education. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tough times can be good times, especially if they produce real pioneers, pioneers like my father who built a junior college on a shoestring and offered real, if limited, opportunities to students with big dreams and little money.
A lot was once done with not a lot of money. Time will tell if it can be done again.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg graduated from Brainerd Junior College and recently retired from Normandale Community College.