When college doesn't knock

Try a year of Punctuality 101 and Economics 6.25

Okay, so the high-school senior who occasionally bathes and shows up for meals at your place didn't wind up on a college's "most wanted" list.

It's not the end of the world, but over the past year or so, filmmakers have skewed our view of college entrance and college life.

Your son may not have the "beautiful mind" that rocketed John Nash to Princeton – and to a mental ward. Just as well.

Your daughter may not have the law-board luck that got a "legally blonde" sorority "simp" into Harvard Law School. Oh well.

In "How High," Rappers Redman and Method Man scored new highs on the SATs and got into Harvard, magna cum marijuana. But would you really want your kids to smoke their way to scholarship? Of course not.

And let's get real: Very few kids are going to have sorties of snowy owls flinging engraved, all-expense-paid invites to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

So your kid didn't get into any school he or she really wants to attend. Where does it say that a kid who graduates from high school in June 2002 is automatically ready to do genuine college work just three months later.

I'm for giving kids a break – from classrooms, study halls, midterms, finals, make-up exams, term papers, and term-paper ripoffs, along with the pressures of coming up with still more excuses for not getting their work done.

It's probably time for many of these kids to go to work – to have 9-to-5 jobs where they'll learn a few lessons that aren't typically part of an academic curriculum. At a full-time job, an 18-year-old can in effect be schooled in Punctuality 101, Dependability 101, and Economics 6.25, in which the student learns firsthand the value of a hard-earned $6.25 an hour.

In an office or at a job site, there's the prospect for maturity that may not come readily amid fraternity rush parties, freshmen mixers, and the rest.

Twenty-one-year-old freshmen tell me how embarrassed they are when they think back on what they did (and didn't do) in high school. At 17, they had had enough of school. At 21, they're motivated. The paycheck that was so splendid at 18 doesn't buy nearly as many movie tickets. Now they're eager to learn more, because they have learned that they need to earn more.

We can go to school on this experience: The 17-year-old who didn't have what admissions officers were looking for in 2002 may become the mature, competent young adult who can impress an admissions officer in 2003 or 2004. And that 17-year-old can boost his or her prospects even more by taking college courses two nights a week.

At community colleges, students get the feel for college-level work: The classes are more than just auditions or try-outs; they can be thought of as full dress rehearsals or even "first takes."

In the hierarchy of higher education, community colleges have what may be thought of as supporting roles. Nevertheless, instructors and career counselors can provide direction, and choreograph a path to some major universities.

For many kids, and parents, college is a big-budget epic, with a cast of thousands. On a slightly smaller scale, community colleges enable students to glimpse the big picture.

• Joseph H. Cooper teaches writing at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and English at several community colleges.

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