Is College for You?

Do you think you are smart, but far from being a genius? Do you struggle with mathematics and/or English? Are you uncomfortable with the thought of reading a book because it’s been a while since you were in school? 


…there’s one thing I have learned in my career, firefighters excel at displaying grit. We don’t let anything beat us in the field, so don’t let a college class get the upper hand. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the field, we have grit and will overcome the odds to accomplish the impossible.

Perfect, that makes you an excellent candidate for higher education. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you, you are the perfect candidate for higher education. Let’s look at some things that can help you become better prepared before taking the big step of enrolling in higher education.

What Are the Odds?

I’d like to share with you some statistics about higher education, but please do not let them discourage you. It is merely intended to illustrate the point that people struggle to finish college. According to statistics from the American Association of Community Colleges, around 50 percent of community college students complete their quest after six years. Several factors come into play that prevent students from completing. We can take those factors and put them in two categories; institutional and student obstacles. One of the main obstacles, caused by the institutions, is too many choices via pick lists. Students need colleges to prepare a concise, easy to understand, and effortless plan to follow that gives the student the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to pursue their career goals. Instead the student is faced with “pick three hours of social/behavioral sciences, three hours of humanities/fine arts, and 12 hours from a laundry list of fire related electives.”

This causes a phenomenon called decision paralysis. Decision paralysis is a very real thing. Don’t believe me, how long does it take for your fire company to decide what you are going to eat for dinner? Reaching that decision can result in finally drawing the name of a fast food joint out of your engineer’s sweaty ball cap. If you translate that level of trauma from four people choosing dinner to choosing a class that will cost hundreds of dollars and you may not even need the class; it is no wonder that colleges are bringing in puppies to relieve stress during exam week (that’s a real thing).

When I took the reins of our Fire Protection Technology program, one of the first things I did was made it more student friendly. I worked with our advisory committee and eliminated virtually all electives. From day one, a student knows exactly what classes they need to take in what semester to complete their degree in two years. As a bonus, it doesn’t matter if a student enters in the spring, summer, or fall semesters; their path is already mapped out. This radical change has resulted in not only increased enrollment, but also a huge increase in completion rates. Well, enough about institutional issues, let’s focus on what a student CAN control.

Time Management

Sometimes it seems that students are not quite sure what to expect when they begin their journey toward a college degree. That uncertainty is enough to keep students from getting pass the point of completing a registration form. So, let’s unpack a bit of what to expect. To achieve a two-year degree will take around 64 credit hours — transfer that and add another 60-ish credits; that will get you a Bachelor’s. So, what’s a credit hour? Think of it like this; a three-credit hour class is equal to three lecture hours per week for 16 weeks — the length of a traditional college semester. That translates to 48 hours of actual class time. Unless your class has labs, then it takes two lab hours to equal one lecture hour. So, assuming that you don’t have any classes with labs, 64 credit hours X 16 weeks = 1,024 hours of class. That equates to about taking your Firefighter 2 certification three times over in North Carolina.

That’s a significant time requirement. So, what does time look like for an online program? Well, I generally urge students to allow for three hours of work for each online class they are taking that is 16 weeks long. If a program has an eight-week format, then plan for six hours for each class you are taking for the eight-week period.

Now that you, the student, have been equipped with that information, you must understand that requires you to make an adjustment in your day-to-day schedule. You need to look at what you do every day of the week, actually write it out if needed. Determine where you are going to be able to fit in reading, classwork and research. Most municipal fire departments allow their firefighters to work on college work while on shift, so that will help offset some of the time requirements. While working on my Associate’s Degree, at five o’clock every shift, I locked myself in my bunkroom with my laptop. I only stopped to run a call, or eat dinner, praying it didn’t take an eternity to decide what we were having. I managed to do the majority of my work at the firehouse, which worked out well since both of my children were small at the time. However, I did have to give up playing cards, watching television and movies with the guys, working on cars, and all the other downtime activities that firefighters undertake. You will have to give up something if you are to add the responsibilities of being a college student.

Do You Have What It Takes?

Not only does the prospect of pursuing a degree require you to manage your time more efficiently, but you must also be prepared for the week in and week out of taking quizzes, reading assignments, discussion boards and writing papers. Then when you have that week completed, guess what? You get to do it again next week for 16 weeks straight. Then comes semester breaks where you get two weeks to detox from the consumption of too much coffee just in time for the next semester to start and the cycle starts over. Then comes summer break, but you will have to take your Humanities and Psychology classes then to finish on time unless you really load up your spring and fall semesters. Well, so much for a summer break.

I know that seems to paint a gloomy picture, but fear not. Psychologists have been studying the college students’ ability to persevere through such a grueling cycle. One of the leaders in the field is Angela Duckworth. In her research that assess if a student has the fortitude to navigate through and outlast the required number of credit hours to complete the degree, she has given this trait a specific title. She has even developed scales to help measure the level of this attribute people possess. What is that characteristic called that Dr. Duckworth has done so much research? Well, it’s called grit. Yes, grit. I can get behind her on that, because it does take grit to grind out college every week for two or more years. It’s kind of like tunneling in Structural Collapse class, one piece of debris at a time dislodged and passed back out of the hole. When you finally get the way cleared, you find only more debris before you get to the void where the victim is located. These are both tough tasks, but there’s one thing I have learned in my career, firefighters excel at displaying grit. We don’t let anything beat us in the field, so don’t let a college class get the upper hand. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the field, we have grit and will overcome the odds to accomplish the impossible.

English, and Math,
and Psychology, Oh My

Like Kryptonite for Superman, most firefighters that come into my program cite the “gen-ed” classes as their weakness. I fall into that very category as well. When I started college, my English skills were lacking. Luckily, I had an incredible English Instructor that changed my view on these skills. She stressed to me that she had no expectation for me to be a Shakespeare, she just wanted to help me become better. I then started looking at these classes through the lens of “these skills will benefit me and my career as a firefighter and an officer” instead of “I hate this, and these classes are stupid, and I don’t need them.” Look, if you would have told me prior to that college experience that I would be writing for a trade publication, I would have laughed you out of the room. I HATED it. Just the thought of it made my skin crawl.

Notice I keep referring to them as skills. They are exactly that, and anyone can build on their skills. How many of you were able to rack minuteman the first time you tried? Or what about rigging a four to one mechanical advantage at one o’clock in the morning with wind and driving rain? Think of all the skills you have developed and are developing as a firefighter. English and other general education classes are skills as well and you can build on them to help you on two fronts; those basic skills are required to be a successful student and a successful fire officer. So, embrace the suck and get to practicing and drilling on those skills.

Get In the Game

In my career, I have noticed that it is not the most intelligent and talented students that capture that goal of a degree in higher education. It’s the students that are able to manage their time and successfully juggle the curveballs of life, while maintaining a priority on course work. Students that walk that stage every spring also have the grit to work week in and week out to plow through the course work and develop more skills than just understanding strategies and tactics. It all starts by just getting in the game. There is no better reward than opening that envelop and pulling out a diploma with your name on it. Once you get in a program, remember that English is your friend and display the grit I know you have.

Next issue, I’ll write about some tips to help you hack college. Not everything has a shortcut, but why not use the ones that are available? Be safe out there.

Richard Carroll has over 25 years of experience serving in volunteer, career, and combination departments. Teaching for the last 13 years, he is currently employed at Cleveland Community College (CCC) as Coordinator and Instructor of Fire and Rescue Training. Carroll has earned his Master’s Degree in Public Safety and Homeland Security Management. In 2018, he was awarded the Community College Excellence in Teaching Award at CCC and was a top three finalist for the same award at the state level. Carroll can be reached at

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