A discussion about Community Colleges
I still remember how confused I was when I read that letter. I had applied to CUNY and my only option had been Hunter College—It was my only idea of what college was back then, for some reason. I had moved to NYC just a few months before and everything was new to me. As a prospective college student, I wasn’t looking for options, I didn’t consider anything else beyond my single chosen college. I followed what the letter suggested, I didn’t go to Hunter College; and instead, I went ahead and enrolled at LaGuardia Community College. It was a beautiful spring season when I started, I remember. And although I enrolled thinking that I was going to transfer after obtaining 24 credits, I ended up graduating. I don’t regret it.
Being a Community College graduate wasn’t an appealing thing to me I must confess. I remember feeling that Community Colleges were for students with low GPA, bad grades, and overall at-risk (though I didn’t know the term back then). But eventually, I had a fruitful and rewarding experience. While I realize that there is a big number of Community College students who fall in the at-risk category, I recognize the potential these institutions have and its important role in the higher education spectrum; and, in reading Mellow and Heelan's Minding the Dream (2015), these notions were reinforced. As a response, there are two aspects about Community Colleges that resonate with me and which I think are worth exploring and amplifying to a broader discussion. First, the complex realities of Community College students and how this deviates from the traditional college student profile we all know. And second, the discussion about Community Colleges being for the community and how they function as an engine for social mobility and economic growth.
First, Mellow and Heelan start by painting the bigger picture about what Community Colleges are, the challenges they face, and how they stand in the current higher education discussion. In doing so, it resonates with me the emphasis the authors put on the realities of Community College students. These students are not living on campus; and instead, tend to work either full or part time. Also, Community College are uniquely American and are open admissions; as such, these institutions are vulnerable to students with all kinds of academic needs and from all SES levels. This accessibility, the authors point out, creates challenges. The ‘lofty goals’ and ‘unfulfilled promises’ is what the authors want to use as a starting point to rethink the concept of the Community College; and to do that, it is critical to understand who the student is. Having worked at a Community College for the last seven years has informed my experience about the complex realities of students and the role of the institution.
Second, Mellow and Heelan’s arguments about the Community College being a public good resonate with me given the work I am involved in at LaGuardia. After the last Presidential elections, faculty and staff across the College have been reminded about the mission of the institution—to educate and graduate one of the most diverse student populations in the country to become critical thinkers and socially responsible citizens who help to shape a rapidly evolving society. We know very well that the purpose of higher education is to balance the public and private good for those who access it. And we also know that mission statements can be vague most of the time but they must be flanked by institutional practices that enable students to get a quality education and move to enter the workforce successfully. To this point, Mellow and Heelan speak about the opportunities everyone can access via Community Colleges. Traditionally, education was thought to be accessible to the elite only; but Community Colleges now appear as a way to move students up in the social ladder which creates community growth in many aspects.
In the end, I did attend Hunter College. I majored in Psychology and discovered a passion for research. Though I did want to pursue a doctoral degree in Social Psychology, my career went in a different direction and I am now pursuing a doctoral degree in the Higher and Postsecondary program at Teachers College in Columbia University. But in thinking back to where my journey started, my experience at a Community College makes me realize about the potential for these institutions, the opportunities we create for students, and the possibilities they can pursue after that.
Mellow, G. O., & Heelan, C. M. (2015). Minding the dream: the process and practice of the American Community College (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.