“Rationing college by social class and ethnicity results in a higher education system that will increase the gap between the 1% and the rest in ever more extreme ways.”
Center for the Future of Higher Education
This month, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) will meet for its annual convention in Orlando, Florida (U.S.). Community college leaders from around the nation will convene to discuss challenges and opportunities confronting the institutions that currently enroll half of the United States’ undergraduate population; in the past, have provided many of us with a stepping stone to our own academic and personal success; and, in the future, will remain the only pathway to college for millions of students, particularly those from low income and minority populations.
This post illuminates the importance of these conversations and stresses the critical role your story plays in defining the nature of community college success. At the top of this page you see an embedded VoiceThread (which you may share with others using this link: http://voicethread.com/share/2927210). You are encouraged to add your story to this VoiceThread to help create a collaborate portrait that illustrates the rich and diverse ways community colleges contribute to each of our lives. This diversity is at risk, as college leaders across the nation begin to examine the meaning of “success” at the community college level, in the name of efficiency.
A Look Back
First, I realize this post will be read by an international audience of educational leaders and because of that, I acknowledge that “community college” means something different to each of you, depending on where you live and what life experiences you bring to the table. Moreover, the symbolic meaning of a “community college” shifts over time within our own cultural discourse. In the 1960s in the United States, for example, community colleges meant something very different to college-age hippies than they will to my own children, the first truly Internet-native generation, who will arrive on campus in about seven years.
Let’s take a look at how CCs have changed between then and now. In the 1960s, a time of great social activism, community colleges in the United States were like the Statue of Liberty of higher education; they represented an opportunity for anyone with a passion and drive to attend college. That’s it, plain and simple. Founded on the principle of open access, community colleges saw an increase in federal support in the 1930s during the Great Depression as resources for providing Americans with low cost, high quality access to in-demand job training programs. After World War II, the United States found itself amidst a new economy that required a highly skilled workforce, resulting in a need for additional models of higher education beyond the traditional university setting.
These were formative years for U.S. higher education, as the demand for more diverse skills emerged, the soil grew fertile for new institutional models. In the late 1940s, the Truman Commission initiated the development of a new network of colleges that would serve the needs of their communities. And in the decades that followed, the U.S. community college system burgeoned. In the 1960s alone, 457 CCs opened, which is more than the total number in existence prior to that decade.
From Open to Closed
In the years that followed, states took unique approaches to integrating community colleges into their local frameworks. In 1960, California formally positioned community colleges as critical players in the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education. The masterplan was written to reduce redundancies between the three unique institution-types and to ensure California residents had reliable access to low-cost, high-quality higher education.
Along with Cal State Universities (CSUs) and Universities of California (UCs), California Community Colleges (CCCs) would serve a unique role for California’s higher education students, providing two-year degrees and certificate programs in support of students seeking job retraining, career technical education, or a transfer to pursue a four-year degree at a university. But there was one more thing the Masterplan clearly specified — that there would be no tuition for CA residents. Yep, college for free and it would be available for “every student who is willing and able to benefit from attendance.” Seems like a dream come true, doesn’t it?
From Poverty to PhD
Well, for many people it was a dream come true. And one of those people was my dad. It was a California community college that gave my dad a chance at success; a chance that the life he was born into would not have provided him with otherwise. My father’s parents immigrated the the U.S. from Slovakia in the early 20th century. His parents made a home in New Jersey and had 15 children together. My dad was the second to last child born. They were a very, very poor family, as you might imagine, that instilled hard-core working class values in the children from a very early age. There was no discussion about or modeling of the value of education in my father’s social upbringing. In fact, working was stressed so much that only one child out of all 15 graduated from high school. That child was my dad.
My dad was different from his siblings. He had a passion inside him that his family members didn’t have — a curiosity to learn that was driven by a love of reading. Since there were few books in his home, my dad would search dumpsters for old books on his way home from school, tuck them away in bag and read them under his covers at night illuminated by a flashlight. He had to keep his reading a secret to ensure his dad didn’t discover him, for in his father’s eyes, reading was a “waste of time” that would get a person nowhere in life.
After high school, and the tragic death of his mother, my dad’s passion for learning pulled him towards dreams of a college degree — something that must have seemed so entirely impossible to someone like him. He enrolled at a local college, taking night classes and working long hours each day as a mechanic to pay for the tuition. He would frequently fall asleep while lying on his back working on the cars at the garage and had questions about the the plausibility of his college dreams.
Then, one day a football coach told a friend who told him about magical places in California that were providing college degrees for free to state residents. That’s all he needed to hear. He packed up all his belongings; left his home, family, and friends; and relocated to California to earn his residency status. Not long after that he enrolled in Porterville Community College. The AA degree he received at Porterville allowed him to transfer to San Jose State University, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree and his Master’s degree — and then he moved to Iowa where he completed his PhD at Iowa State.
My dad is now a retired, accomplished research scientist. The results of California’s commitment to low-cost, high-quality higher education allowed him, a child born into poverty, to be granted a chance to earn a college degree. He took that chance and, in turn, made significant contributions to the state’s burgeoning high-tech mecca known as Silicon Valley in the coming decades. About four years ago, my dad and two of his old college friends drove from the Bay Area, where they now reside, back to Porterville to visit the campus that gave them the stepping stone for success. It is the institution he is grateful for most. Today you may find him at home lounging in his recliner reading a book about quantum physics in a Porterville College t-shirt.
In 2002, when I began teaching at community college full-time, a dean asked me if I had a special community college story to share, and I said “no.” I answered that way because after high school I went straight to a four year college. But now, as I’ve had time to reflect on that question, I realize that I owe my own privileged, middle-class upbringing to a community college. It’s because of a community college that my father had the chance to pursue his college dream, and it’s because of that chance that I was born into a middle-class family and had the options presented to me.
As a community college instructor, I see all kinds of students in my classes. Some have the passion and drive that my dad had, but many of them who do, don’t possess the reading skills that propelled my father through his college experiences. Some have learning disabilities and some of them aren’t diagnosed. Many are first-generation college students. Some are completely disempowered after years of poor performance on standardized exams and are convinced that they’re stupid. Some excel from day one and need little guidance or support. Community colleges bring all kinds of learners and they should because that’s who we want to dream about going to college. And that’s exactly who should have a chance at going to college.
Sadly, things have changed tremendously since the 1960s. In California, the community college system has blossomed into the nation’s grandest system of higher education, comprised of 112 colleges serving roughly 2.5 million students. While the the public’s demand for the services CCs provide in California continues to grow, the California budget deficit has spiraled into an unimaginable multi-billion dollar figure that has resulted in catastrophic cuts to all sectors of public education in the state. Since 2008, than $800 million dollars of state funding has been cut from the statewide community college system. As a result, fewer classes can be offered and, for the first time since the inauguration of California’s Master Plan, students are being turned away. This year, compared to 2009, roughly 300,000 fewer students are enrolled at a California community college.
A report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education, Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap, stresses the importance of understanding who is getting squeezed out of higher education and what effects of this rationing process are on society. The report states, “We are living in a time of growing gaps between the rich and the rest – gaps that have not been seen since the Great Depression. Since the largest growth in traditional age students is among lower-income, first-generation, students of color, and immigrants, they will be impacted the most. Rationing college by social class and ethnicity results in a higher education system that will increase the gap between the 1% and the rest in ever more extreme ways.”
Share Your Story
The conversations in motion at this very moment are defining the future of community colleges and deciding who will have a chance at college in the future. I believe we all have a story to share that will illuminate a new shade, a new dimension of the value community colleges bring to the United States. Without sharing these stories, they remain silent. We need to make bring them together, make them heard, and share them widely. As we travel through this great enigma of life, through every dark twist and turn pretending to know what we want to do and who we want to become, each of us is presented with pathways that lead us to new places. Any pathway we choose at a given moment will define our next set of opportunities and reveal more about who we are and what life has in store for us. For many of us, a community college has served as a defining pathway that has shaped our life and provided opportunities that would have otherwise remained veiled.
Please take a moment to share your story. And please share this VoiceThread link with your contacts: http://voicethread.com/share/2927210/