As more people attend higher education every year, the question on the minds of many high school seniors is: “What is the next step?”. For some, it is hitting the workforce immediately, working at their family’s business or working part-time. For others, the choice is a trade school: Allured by the pull of the high pay of electricians and plumbers. Further still made the same choice many of my classmates did: Attend university.
All that is well and good until you are met with 3,733 higher education institutions within the US, excluding options internationally. Many of these students have the option of prestigious private universities (such as Johns Hopkins) or smaller but no less well-known state universities. But the decision of many is, of course, to attend their local community college. There are plenty of stereotypes surrounding the quaint community college. Look no further than the show Community: A place with odd people that no other university would accept, with poor professors and poorer quality education. Simultaneously, for many of us, our only hands-on exposure to community college is through the programs in our high schools.
And yet a decision must be made, and the first step is often the same: Looking up whether community colleges are a desirable choice. And yet, before your questions are completely typed, Google will have given you the following autosuggestions:
The question is, then, why are these the suggestions? Why not glowing praises or location-specific results? Why (and how) are community colleges represented in this way?
Before analysing the results, it’s helpful to analyse more broadly what are Google’s autocomplete suggestions, how they developed, and the potential biases that may be present within them. Despite Google’s position in the cultural zeitgeist as an accessible, reliable source of information, it is, first and foremost, a company. Instead of your local public library, which is beholden at most to legislation, Google is bound to its profit margin. In Algorithms of Oppression, Umoja Noble states, “… much of the content surfaced in a web search in a commercial search engine is linked to paid advertising, which in part helps drive it to the top of the page rank, and searchers are not typically clear about the distinctions between “real” information and advertising.” (Noble 2018, 38).
The search results are not nearly as unbiased as they appear, and implicit within them are preconceptions of the value in community colleges, whether the higher rank of Google (who undoubtedly attended prestigious universities) personally holds those beliefs. As code passes hand between departments, more biases embed within the results. On the surface, the code appears innocuous, simply pooling from the vast wealth of information embedded in every google search, but is it not a cycle? If you search “why are community colleges” with no preconceived notions by design, you will want to click one of these choices, thereby maintaining their appearance in the results. This is especially evident when considering changing the algorithm outputs completely different results. As Noble says, “search engine design is not only a technical matter but also a political one. Search engines provide essential access to the web both to those who have something to say and offer and to those who wish to hear and find. Search is political, and at the same time, search engines can be quite helpful when one is looking for specific types of information, because the more specific and banal a search is, the more likely it is to yield the kind of information sought.” (Noble 2018, 89). Ultimately the decisions on what suggestions are shown are not innocent ones, and even if they were, “intent is not particularly important. Outcomes and results are important.” (Noble 2018, 90). Whether Google’s slogan is “do no evil” or “do plenty of evil”, the outcome is the same: biased access to information that can either be very helpful or incredibly detrimental. The question, then, is whether the choice should be up to a monopoly that is beholden only to their shareholders, if that access should be regulated by government agencies, or whether there is something in between.
Of course, the search “why do community colleges…” does not get us much closer to that particular answer but does help us analyse the results via the framework Noble has set out.
The autosuggestions are a mixed bag. On one hand, the words “low” and “bad” imply that they are not as good as larger universities. It appears that culturally, community colleges are seen as the last viable option, for those with nowhere else to go. The other implication is that private universities rank higher and provide higher quality education to their students. The idea that community colleges will accept practically anyone is quite common: When I was in high school, I joked that even if we were rejected by all other universities, our local community college’s 99% acceptance rate would certainly accept us.
The idea that community colleges are somehow lesser than other options, of course, dismisses the fact that for most people, private education is out of their reach not because of any personal faults but because of cost. Community colleges allow people that work part-time, care for children, or want to head back to school the opportunity to do so. It is something inaccessible even through public universities. Community colleges are often built specifically for this purpose: flexible, quality education for a fraction of the price.
Of course, some of the suggestions recognise this: “better than universities”, “important”, and “cheap”. There has been a shift recently to recognise the usefulness of community colleges. Many seniors are not as enticed with the idea of attending a 4-year university and amassing thousands of dollars in debt, as often where the degree comes from is not at all important. As such, the questions are probably posed by those trying to get a faithful sense of all their options. The tone of these questions is much nicer than the others. They represent a shift in the dialogue surrounding higher education.
The question you may be asking is whether or not these results are consistent across search engines, and they are:
The wording is spot on across all these search engines, with no change. That’s odd: Are identical searches being made by users of these different platforms? Are the algorithms simply incredible similar? As I’ve mentioned earlier, these results are certainly representative (perhaps anecdotally) of common opinions held of community colleges.
Interestingly, when we enter “why are community colleges”, the results are different! Notice the bold sentences: “Flexible”, “accredited”, “easier enrolment”, and “lower tuition/fees”. When we had considered only the suggestions, the results were negative, while here there is a complete tonal shift. Perhaps this is indicative of a narrative push by Google: based on the results of the autocorrect, we should have expected more pages that were highly critical of community colleges, whilst here that is completely lacking. Community colleges are shown in an entirely positive light.
For many who are contemplating what their next step in life is, they will consider community colleges. For some, the option of attending a four-year university from the get-go will have been closed for a long time, so a community college will be a great opportunity for them to make that leap. For better or worse, Google will be their choice to find the information on that decision.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. “Searching for Black Girls.” Essay. In Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, 148. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2021. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d21/tables/dt21_317.40.asp