Guest Opinion: Finding a college fit right in your own backyard | November 18, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 18, 2011

Guest Opinion: Finding a college fit right in your own backyard

by Betsy Bechtel and Barbara Klausner

Students who are successful in Radu Toma's highest lane math classes at Palo Alto High School go on to Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton. Daniel Raburn was one of those students.

Daniel was gifted, one of his strongest students, recalls Toma, head of the Paly math department. After receiving a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley, Daniel went on to earn a Ph.D. in plasma physics from Princeton. But before he got to Cal and Princeton, Daniel started his undergraduate studies as a full-time student at Foothill College, right here in our own backyard.

This is the time of year when families of our Palo Alto school district Class of 2012 whittle down the list of college applications. In a community where academic expectations and achievement appear to know no bounds, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and its sister college, De Anza in Cupertino, are often overlooked as options. In fact, every year between 11-16 percent of Palo Alto school district graduates go straight to Foothill and De Anza. An additional number attend sometime during their undergraduate career as part of their journey to earning a four-year degree.

So while local community colleges may not typically appear on senior year wish lists of colleges, our students have reaped significant academic benefits from this Foothill-De Anza support network. Their families also reap significant financial savings.

A student today who follows Daniel's path of combining two years at Foothill with two years at a UC would pay tuition and fees of approximately $27,000 over four years for a UC degree — about $1,170 a year at Foothill and an average of $12,150 a year at UC. Tuition and fees for all four years at UC would run about $48,600. Mike Scott, a 2008 Palo Alto district grad and outstanding student-athlete, parlayed his Foothill experience into an even better deal. After spending two years as captain of the Foothill football team, he transferred to the University of Idaho, where he is playing wide receiver on full scholarship.

Cost savings, however, is not the sole reason Palo Alto students choose Foothill and De Anza. For those who want certainty about their next educational step, Foothill and De Anza offer Transfer Admission Guarantee agreements (TAGs) with a number of public and private four-year universities. TAGs guarantee students admission as juniors to a particular university if they meet specified course and grade requirements. Foothill and De Anza have TAGs with seven UC campuses — Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

Another route is the one taken by Catherine "Cat" Chiang, a 2009 Palo Alto district graduate. Initially a student at Tulane, Cat came home after one semester and enrolled at Foothill with a goal of transferring to UCLA, where she is now majoring in political science. As a participant in Foothill's Honors Institute and its Transfer Alliance Program (TAP) with UCLA, Cat maximized her chances of landing a coveted spot at UCLA the moment she set foot on the Foothill campus. "If you just follow the instructions," she explained, "it is almost always a sure thing."

While not a guarantee of transfer admission, the UCLA TAP program is open to students who participate in Foothill's Honors Institute. Last year, 82 percent of those participants who applied through the TAP were accepted to UCLA for fall 2010.

The Honors Institute provided Cat with excellent transfer preparation. "The work was challenging and professors actually gave you one-on-one attention," she said. Her Foothill honors instructors required participation and active thinking in class while small classes allowed for more long assignments and papers.

Cat suggests that more students consider attending community college for their first two years before transferring. "The only thing preventing people from going to Foothill is the stigma around community college, which is so unfortunate," she said. "I met some of the smartest people at Foothill and in the end you will be at a university you really love."

Caitlyn Kozelka is another Palo Alto district graduate who, like Cat, came to Foothill after a brief stint at a four-year college. Today Caitlyn is attending UCLA where she is pursuing a combined linguistics and psychology major. "A large contributing factor to my experience at Foothill, and in the honors program in particular, was how much the professors care about you doing your best work, and how much they are really willing to help you succeed," Caitlyn said. In hindsight, she added, "Entering Foothill really gave me time to figure out what my academic goals really were.''

Caitlyn found inspiration and support from outstanding professors. Two Foothill political science professors particularly challenged her to become a better student — Fulbright scholar Dr. Meredith Heiser, a Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Dr. Joe Woolcock, a Stanford Ph.D. whose instructional strategy for teaching American government is featured in a New York Times toolkit. For another Palo Alto district grad, it was award-winning astronomy Professor Andrew Fraknoi, a Harvard and Cal grad who contributes frequently to NPR, serves on the SETI Institute board and was Carnegie Foundation's 2007 California Professor of the Year.

Daniel, Mike, Cat and Caitlin are not alone in their success. Some 80 percent of students who entered Foothill College directly from Paly and Gunn since 2004-05 either completed preparation for transfer or successfully transferred to a university.

In fact, Foothill-De Anza ranks No. 1 among California's 72 community college districts in the number of students who transfer to a UC campus. In the words of Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education, "Community colleges play a key role in America's economy, and Foothill-De Anza sets the gold standard."

Many high school grads are still searching for that sweet spot in their quest to fulfill their hopes for a successful, meaningful and rewarding life. Foothill's open access and the accessibility of its professors offer a rare opportunity for students to find their way in a hurry-up, high-stakes world.

Brian Martin, a 1992 Gunn graduate, took 20 years to find his way back to Foothill. A two-time Olympic medalist, Brian first took courses at Foothill as a high school student-athlete. After a successful career as a professional athlete, he is now back in Palo Alto, immersing himself in classes with Professor Fraknoi and contemplating a new focus on geophysics.

We as a community should join leaders like Michael Kirst and Brian Martin in savoring the educational opportunities available at Foothill and De Anza for PAUSD graduates and their families.

Betsy Bechtel is a trustee of the Foothill De Anza Community College District and the former mayor of Palo Alto. Barbara Sih Klausner is a Palo Alto Unified School District parent and a current district board member.


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Posted by Gisela Zebroski
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm

So true. As former FH graduate (1969) and now member of the Foothill Commission I appreciate this article. Yes, it is unfortunate that community colleges don't enjoy more respect. I would have never completed my college education - I had not been to highschool due to wartime difficulties - if it had not been for the personal attention and inspiration from my professors. Their enthusiasm and support kept me going when my rudimentary English hampered my written expressions. I eventually graduated from SJSU with a double major, Psychology and Russian, a minor in French, plus a solid dose of philosophy and real estate. Community colleges deserve all the support they can get so that more people can realize their potential. Once a student gets started at FH the going gets easy. I am now a writer with two novels to my credit and handled numerous real estate ventures.

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Posted by Birgit Calhoun
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

I went to Foothiil College and finished my bachelor's degree in Language Studies at UC Santa Cruz in 1987 when I was 46 years old. Foothill had a re-entry program then where older students received significant help in classes run by counselors. I also participated in the honors program at Foothill at that time. It already existed then. I was 46 years old when I graduated. I am glad to see someone point out the real value of being close to home and getting into college life with less immediate pressure and significant savings. I highly recommend experiencing college life at two schools.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Thank you so much for writing this much-needed article on the advantages of community college.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

I only wish Gunn and Paly gave this type of information to students. Whenever there are student panels or parent college information, Foothill is always left out. I feel sure many parents as well as the students themselves would welcome the information.
Many high school seniors look forward to moving away from home, but many are not emotionally ready and this is another reason why the Foothill route is a good transition to independence.

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Posted by CrunchyCookie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

CrunchyCookie is a registered user.

Yes, spending your first two years at a CC is definitely the most rational thing to do if money is a priority. No one cares where you start, only where you get your degree. Plus who couldn't use an extra $24,000 these days?

Just be sure you're aware of the non-monetary costs:
-Your university GPA goes down a tad, since you'll have plowed through all the easy stuff at a different school
-Spending two more lame years at home with mommy/daddy instead of in an adventurous new city, housed in a hall with 40 horny 18-year-olds (dorm life is very much a freshmen-only deal in California)
-Most undergrads have fulfilled their friend quotas by junior year; you might be left out

By the way, does any known institution/magazine actually rate community colleges? I've been hearing Foothill being #1 in most ways since the dawn of time but have never traced these accolades to a source.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.