There is a college that doesn’t have its own flag on the walls of the College Counseling Office. You won’t find it on seniors’ lists of potential colleges, nor will you see it written across graduation party banners or balloons or cakes. When adults inquire about college prospects, students sometimes hesitate to even mention the school’s name. And yet, this college is one of the more popular choices for seniors: 10-15% of Milken graduates attend each year.
In the Milken community, Santa Monica College has come to bear a mark of shame. The two-year community college is wrongly perceived as a symbol for slacking off in high school, the code word for college-process failure, and the subject of jokes on campus. When my friend gets several questions wrong on a test, her friends tease her by telling her she’s going to SMC. When a classmate is describing his college list to a friend, he jokes that SMC is his “reach school.” A couple years ago, when the senior class wanted to undermine the junior class’ morale during Color Wars, they chanted: “SMC, SMC, SMC.”
Not only is this SMC stigma entirely unmerited and unfounded, but it also goes against our basic community values. Milken is a place where students are given the tools to thrive academically and socially, and inherent in this mission is the necessity of supporting each and every student on their unique journey to success. It’s true that one of the strengths of the Milken community is that it encourages high achievement and academic success, but it’s also true that one of its shortcomings is that it labels SMC as the symbol of failure in those respects.
There are countless reasons why a student might choose SMC, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with laziness, lack of intelligence, or the other qualities for which the school has been stereotyped. One of the most common factors is that SMC’s affordability makes it an appealing option for families who aren’t inclined to pay for all four years of a university. In addition, spending a year or two at SMC is a beneficial experience for students who don’t feel ready for a traditional college experience or need more time to figure out the path they’d like to take in life. It’s also important to point out that the majority of SMC-bound seniors did actually get into other colleges — oftentimes prestigious ones. But many students decide, for a number of reasons, that they would rather not settle for those schools or get comfortable at a certain college before transferring to their top-choice university after a year.
“USC had been my dream school growing up – specifically the Marshall School of Business,” said a Class of 2012 alum who decided to attend SMC. “When I didn’t get in right out of high school, I weighed several different options for schools and decided that if I wanted to end up at USC, SMC was the best route. In the end I was very happy with my decision because it allowed me to reach my final goal.”
It’s imperative that we set aside our misconceptions of SMC and look at the school for what it is: a two-year college that prepares students for success when they transfer to four-year universities. Period. When all jokes are put aside, SMC is a respectable, quality institution that provides students with resources and tools to thrive in a university environment. Countless seniors who attended SMC are now successful people who embody Milken’s vision of a graduate all the same — likely even more successful than they would have been if they had gone to a university directly after high school.
“For many in our community, SMC is exactly what they need immediately after high school graduation,” Ross Mankuta, Director of College Counseling, said. “The maturation and growth that can take place at community college can be critically important for many of today’s youth.”
All too often we see SMC as the end to an unrewarding college process, when in reality, it’s just the beginning of a student’s journey. Any high school senior can attest to the fact that the entire enterprise of college admissions is certifiably crazy. At the close of the very mystifying admissions process, countless extremely deserving students are denied from institutions with no explanation. The college admissions process puts each student through a unique series of twists and turns, and the ultimate result is the product of much contemplation and effort on the part of the student and their family. It comes down to a single idea: We can’t judge what we don’t know. It is impossible to understand the many nuanced factors that went into each senior’s decision, and the role of the Milken community is to encourage and support, not evaluate.
One way that we can move forward and erase the SMC stigma in the Milken community is by further incorporating SMC into college counseling conversation. Currently, the perception at Milken is that each student will go to a four-year university after high school. In the college counseling program, SMC exists tacitly as a viable option for certain students, and when it is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of “Well, if nothing else works out then there’s always SMC.” This aura of college expectation is what causes SMC to seem like a symbol of failure, but really it is a college choice like any other. The college counseling department is already aware of the need for more conversation about SMC and has some ideas about how to address the school.
“Milken can encourage or sponsor visit programs to SMC and other local community colleges so that students and families appreciate that our school does not devalue the experiences and opportunities that these institutions can provide,” Mankuta suggested.
Perhaps a member of the Class of 2015 put it best when they said the following:
“ After reflecting on my decision to attend SMC, I realized that I am not a failure. Everything that I have learned at Milken and all my success is not determined by where I got accepted to or where I choose to go. Who I am and my accomplishments are not defined by the college admissions process.”
As a community, we must abide by the message of this student’s words. We must consciously avoid devaluing or shaming students for their college choice, because at the end of the day, the choice to attend SMC – or any college – has little to do with the student’s character or abilities. SMC is simply one of many stepping-stones on the path to success, no less valuable than any other step.
Maybe once we understand this, we can start writing SMC on graduation balloons.