From Second Best to Source of Pride: A Bright Future for Community College [Opinion]

Community colleges have received unprecedented attention in the past several years. Hardly a week seems to go by without some story in the news about these two-year institutions.

The growing media coverage has included a recent New York Times op-ed piece that Tom Hanks wrote, saying he owes his success to community college. There was a proposal announced last month by President Obama to make community colleges tuition-free for many students. By declaring that these schools are a great option “for parents and full-time workers, for veterans re-entering civilian life, and for those who don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work,” the President joined a loud chorus of educators, politicians, and pundits who singled out two-year colleges as the country’s most powerful tool to improve educational and economic opportunities for the underprivileged.

Not only do community colleges comprise the largest single sector of American postsecondary education — enrolling about 45 percent of all undergraduates — but as a result of their open admissions policies and lower costs, they also enroll much more diverse student bodies than do 4-year colleges. And in the wake of the 2008 recession, the role of community colleges in our economic recovery has become even more vital. The upshot is that the historical stigma attached to community colleges as a second-best, last resort option seems to be giving way to a newfound sense of the role these institutions fill in a democratic, inclusive, and equitable society.

This recent attention on community colleges, though, has also brought to light the immense challenges in educating such a diverse, non-traditional student population. Stubbornly poor graduation and retention rates have led critics to doubt whether 2-year colleges can live up to their promise. In addition, emerging digital technologies, coupled with the need to prepare students for an increasingly interconnected and uncertain global society, have called into question the relevance of traditional higher education in general.

Addressing the Challenges

In response to these challenges, an influential reform movement, under the aegis of liberal education, is sweeping colleges and universities, nationally and internationally. Its chief aim is to expand our understanding of learning as a dynamic, socioculturally situated process that takes place not only across many sites like college campuses, but also across students’ total engagement with their communities and the world at large.

As a result, a plethora of structural and pedagogical innovations have cropped up among colleges as they seek to place the whole student at the center of integrative learning experiences. In other words, learning is increasingly recognized to be inextricably linked with identity development — that is, with authoring one’s self in a social context. What this all means is that community colleges, now more than ever, are compelled to embrace educational transformation and provide leadership in educating a remarkably diverse and underserved student body.

Peer Activist Learning Community: A Case Study

While not all community colleges are equally prepared to take up this challenge, I have been very fortunate that LaGuardia Community College, where I’ve worked for ten years as a full-time psychology professor, is fully committed to innovation and progressive pedagogies. Located in Queens, in the heart of New York City, LaGuardia serves one of the most diverse and underserved populations in the country. Our students come mostly from minority families, and more than half are foreign born. Together, they speak over one hundred languages natively.

At LaGuardia, we are proud to challenge expectations and outdated ideas that college is only for certain people. We are keenly aware that we are uniquely positioned to democratize access to higher education, and we cherish our purpose to contribute to making a more equitable society. We have been working hard to develop our expertise in promoting learning and elevating the opportunities for diverse and underprivileged groups. Arguably, this is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Our vibrant campus has fearlessly embarked on large innovative projects to offer our students the best available learning tools to increase their personal and collective agency and prepare them to become leaders in our globalized and fast-changing society.

To achieve that, LaGuardia offers a wide array of professional development programs where faculty are constantly working to reinvent outmoded teaching practices. Personally, I have been involved in many innovative programs based on cutting-edge approaches to learning and human development, all aimed at promoting diversity through inclusive education.

The Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC), which I created with my co-researcher Naja Hougaard, is one such initiative. PALC seeks to engage students as social actors in the mutually constitutive process of personal and collective transformation. Building from the transformative activist stance approach, which maintains that individual agency in transformative collaborative practices is the grounding for human development, this project offers students a space and tools for activist learning and development to engage in transforming educational practices.

Organized around weekly meetings, PALC draws on students’ diverse range of cultural repertoires to critically reflect on their college and life experiences as they master and debate theoretical concepts introduced in their courses and in PALC. How students enact, appropriate, accept, contest, and transform cultural and academic discourses become the key resources in constructing their learning experiences and transforming educational practices. By drawing on social theories as tools with which to critically analyze and expand students’ own discourses toward a range of social issues and their own emerging life agendas, PALC has been very successful in engaging minority students from underprivileged backgrounds in meaningful learning that empowers them as social agents.

In PALC and other programs around the college, I have witnessed the amazing transformation and achievement of many students. Success stories proliferate at LaGuardia, such as those of PALC students who are now in graduate school or honors students who transferred to prestigious four-year colleges with generous scholarships. What is most remarkable is how this transformative approach fosters students’ positioning as social actors who actively reimagine their futures and the steps needed to shape the world.

As an educator and a citizen of the world, I feel immensely gratified to see so many students who once doubted their own capacities and felt alienated in educational institutions, and who, moreover, often come to community college as a last resort, realize their vast, virtually unlimited potential as they turn their learning and development in the community college into the best option.