Look around: who attends a Community College?

Image source: LaGuardia Community College

Image source: LaGuardia Community College

"You need to take remedial courses" she said out loud while looking at the sheet of paper in her hands. "Ok, so you're going to take this, this, and this" she said, with a sign of relief as when someone finds a solution to a problem, and pointing her finger to a sheet of paper with a list of courses. I remained silent and before I was ready to say something, she handed me the sheet of paper and continued: "Go to the lab down the hall to register and don't forget to print your schedule before you leave, ok? Good luck." So, I went. This was my first advisement session in college.

Navigating the college system was a challenge to me. The advisement part, the placement test, the course selection, the developmental course list and the major course list, and the list goes on and on. But the challenge, I think, wasn't only navigating the complex system; but instead, the lack of guidance I perceived upon entering college. To start, I quickly realized that my experience would be rich but hard to navigate. In my first college class (a remedial math course), I quickly noticed the diversity in the classroom. Much to my surprise, this was the case in the rest of classes I took. As months and semesters went by, I fully internalized the idea that the diversity wasn’t just external; but rather, in age, experiences, and academic preparation, too.

In reading Mellow and Heelan's (2015) chapter on programmatic challenges of diverse demographics, it resonates with me the importance of thinking about who the student is. Mellow and Heelan argue that there is a high need to rethink so much in higher education around pedagogy, relationships with K-12, and even how faculty are hired, because the current model does not simply speak to the students' needs. This makes me think about how much each of these areas impact the experience students have especially in their first year in college. Mellow and Heelan speak about the diversity of students on many accounts. Age, for example, appears to present rich opportunities but some challenges too. A psychology class where mothers can speak from experience in raising their kids in light of Piaget’s theory is certainly a richer discussion when coupled with younger students who are just developing their frontal lobe and cognitive capacity for long-term planning.

Image source: LaGuardia Community College

Image source: LaGuardia Community College

The diversity among students is also critical around academic needs. At LaGuardia, for example, the latest 2017 Institutional Profile indicates that 71% of first-time degree-seeking students needed basic math before entering college-credit math courses in the Fall of 2016 (p. 25). The highest need, however, can be found in math only. Basic writing, reading, and ESL do not surpass 20%. This makes me think about how institutions are working towards meeting students’ needs. Mellow and Heelan argue that the current system does not work. But how does an institution learn what students need? One way is to explore data and find ways to get to build the community college student profile. If this happens, important initiatives can then unfold. At LaGuardia, there is a group of faculty working on Math curriculum aimed at designing courses to move students through remediate math courses faster. This, I think, is a clear example of how an institution can start to address students’ needs.

Another important aspect to consider is each student’s reality. As Mellow and Heelan point out, community college is the institution that receives the most vulnerable of populations from the society. Parents who struggle and even single parents who joggle multiple responsibilities are attending school either full or part time. To help these students, institutions must provide a system that’s strong in social support. There are many students that do not attend classes because they don’t have a MetroCard or access to food during the day. In her New York Times article titled It’s Hard to Study if You’re Hungry, Sara Goldrick-Rab explores this issue at a larger scale and argues about the need of drawing attention to these students. Additionally, she indicates that a forthcoming research study at CUNY shows that 30 percent of community college students are food insecure.

In sum, it’s critical for institutions to flesh out a comprehensive student profile to be able to build a structure of support that addresses multiple needs and that enables students to have a meaningful college experience. Doing this, though, entails collaborative and cross-divisional work.

Today, I can be on the other side. In my role at the Center for Teaching and Learning, I contribute to building initiatives that shape students' first year experience in college. Having been on their shoes, I realize about their needs and challenges, their strengths, and opportunities; but more importantly, their need to be educated and serve their communities. Mellow and Heelan reinforce this understanding and need to know who the community college really is.


Mellow, G. O., & Heelan, C. M. (2015). Minding the dream: the process and practice of the American Community College (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.