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Nontraditional Students and Community Colleges: The Conflict of Justice and Neoliberalism

reviewed by Rashné R. Jehangir - October 17, 2008

coverTitle: Nontraditional Students and Community Colleges: The Conflict of Justice and Neoliberalism
Author(s): John S. Levin
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1403970106, Pages: 288, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Drawing on 180 interviews with students, faculty, staff and administrators from 13 community colleges across nine states, Levins Non Traditional Students and Community Colleges puts forth an expansive argument addressing a wide array of topics impacting community colleges. He takes on the challenge of both unpacking the nature of the community college experience and its diverse student body and also analyzing these experiences through the lens of education as a vehicle of justice and equity. His assessment of the position of community colleges and their capacity to effectively serve the most disadvantaged students calls into question the state of higher education where students increasingly become commodities and consumerssources of revenue and products to be sold (p. 5).

The book invites us to explore the extent to which community college students receive justice both within their institutions and as an outcome of their education (p. 5). This notion of justice is defined in the context of three theoretical frameworks: John Rawls theories of justice, neoliberalism and globalization. Rawls theory of justice argues for a social contract between members of society and [specifically] educational institutions in order that those who are least advantaged are afforded the greatest opportunities to overcome inequalities, which in turn best serves the larger public good. This notion of a just society (Boyer, 1990) is met head on by the growing influence of external agents that purport a neoliberal agenda that focuses on individual economic interests and creates a type of social darwinism (p. 3) that actively limits advancement both educationally and economically for students with the least resources. Levin goes one step further in connecting globalization, an arm of capitalism and consumerism, to this neoliberal agenda. He argues that community colleges that are already in the shadow of four-year institutions are now subject to the climate of organizational power that pushes corporate business models and resource constraints into academic settings which are ill-suited to these approaches. The result is an identity crisis for the community college and in turn a failure of justice to the students it serves. The voices of both students and staff certainly provide evidence to support ways in which community colleges and their students are pulled in multiple directions. The crux of the identity crisis is the push and pull between serving a broad range of student needs and aspirations within the limitations of state policies that often curtail student development and life options. Even more constraining is that in many cases funding resources suggest that the state may have its own aspirations for students and their role in the neoliberal market economy.


Levin draws on rich narratives from students to give readers a sense of their varied experiences. He also takes on the task of defining or at least peeling back the many layers of identities that these college students represent. In pointing out the fact that 46 percent of college bound students are community college students, he seeks to bring their experience out of the shadows of traditional, four-year institutions. Specifically, in focusing on disadvantaged students, Levin seeks to separate this group from the broader umbrella of non-traditional students. Non-traditional students are typically defined as a population that is older than twenty-four years of age. Disadvantaged students, on the other hand, may include older students, re-entry students, first-generation students, ESL students and also those students who are beyond the margins (p. 30), including the working poor, welfare-recipients, undocumented students and students with disabilities. While some of these categories are ascribed and not forms of self-descriptions, the students bearing the burden of these labels are seeking to function in a realm where they lack the social, economic and cultural capital that is the primary currency for success. In addition, Levin argues that, these students are often largely invisible not only to scholars, policymakers, and government officials, but also to administrators and faculty at their own institutions (p. 32). The narratives demonstrate the range of ways in which students for whom the very word student is just one small component of their identity - seek to use the educational experience as a means of reinventing themselves, their lives and the lives of their families.

Levins work not only sheds light on the varied experiences, aspirations and challenges faced by community college students but also provides an interesting window into faculty, staff and administrators who work in these settings. While some are complicit in perpetuating or supporting policies and assessment of students that are in keeping with a neoliberal ideology, many are creatively finding ways to support students despite constraints. This support comes in many forms and requires these employees to not only perform their job but also serve as coach, mentor, and human service counselor, to name a few. Many of them may take up a pet cause be it working with undocumented students, first-generation students or re-entry welfare-receipts. Whatever their cause, these employees become quiet crusaders and activists. Staff and administrators use their discretion to navigate obstacles with the approach of street-level bureaucrats (p. 49), the problem then is that some fortunate students receive piecemeal solutions, but there is no universal approach to challenge inequities.

What then is the purpose of the community college in creating equity? While Levin agrees that community colleges may allow students the opportunity for social mobility by making them more marketable for particular jobs, this does not fully meet the principles for justice. Levins analysis of three institutional comparisons of student experiences at community colleges reveals that not only do students have an unrealistic understanding of the personal benefits of education, but that,

faculty articulate their efforts to help students obtain a better job and complete academic class or program in which they are enrolled&[they also] characterize the instructional role narrowly, limiting their ability to give the students the knowledge and skills needed in the current job market. (p. 129)

This problem is muddied however, by limited resources, limited staff, and a student population who may be looking to the community college as a panacea for their life challenges.  

While the book stops short of providing practice oriented steps to deal with this crisis, Levins research implicitly suggests that career life development, curricular transformation and re-examination of pedagogical approaches that might best serve students may be worthy undertakings for community colleges. Many student narratives revealed a sense of confusion about direction, career choices and life- goals. While this is not uncommon for any college student, the stakes are particularly high for students with limited resources who have so much riding on their academic plans. Reflecting on the concept of self-authorship (Baxter-Magolda, 2001), Levin argues that unlike traditional students for whom college is a place of self-development and coming of age, his students are of age and their stories are about& who they are and who they become in college (p. 92). More recent self-authorship research by Pizzolato (2005) and Torres and Hernandez (2007), who focus on first-generation high-risk students and Latino students, respectively, reinforces the value of learning environments that enable students to develop internal principles which allow them to better navigate and assess academic and life contexts. Other students commented on the isolation they felt in their learning experiences where the absence of group work, community and connectedness impacted their success. Engstrom and Tintos (2007) expansive study on development educational learning communities for low-income students [community colleges] suggests the value and high returns of this type of curricular design and pedagogical approach both for the institution and its students.  

With the lens of a critical theorist, Levin draws upon a wealth of research, theory and narrative to make the case that higher education institutions are value systems that must bear responsibility for creating and maintaining avenues of access to education. Yet, access alone is not enough, and community colleges in particular must also build in resources and organizational frameworks that can sustain the most disadvantaged students and remedy the injustice they face. Given a climate of neoliberalism, Levin argues that state funding of the community college suggests that it is not valued for what it can provide to students but rather for its ability to house (p. 189) students in a holding pattern that does not serve their best interests. His work then is a call for action that suggests a much-needed revaluation of not only the role of education but also how its leaders must use their authority and leverage to the entire political fray to garner more support and justice for their students.  


Boyer, E. (1990). Campus life: In search of community.  Princeton: NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching.

Engstrom, C., & Tinto, V. (2008). Access without support is not opportunity. Change, 40(1), 46-50.  

Pizzolato, J.E. (2005). Creating crossroads for self-authorship: Investigating the provocative moment. Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), 624-641.

Torres, V. & Hernandez, E. (2007). The influence of ethnic identity on self-authorship: A longitudinal study of Latino/a college students. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 558-573.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 17, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15419, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:06:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Rashné Jehangir
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    RASHNE R. JEHANGIR is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Post Secondary Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.
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