Introduction to Commentary Special Series on Community Colleges
by Robin G. Isserles & David L. Levinson - January 18, 2022
This is the introduction to the special commentary series on community colleges.
We call ourselves the voice of scholarship in education, but what voices are we actually representing? And are we speaking to issues of the day? Are we supporting national and global perspectives related to educational and societal equity?1
Michelle Knight-Manuel, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
Executive Editor, Teachers College Record
Teachers College/Columbia University
Department of Curriculum and Teaching
In her inaugural statement as new the new Editor of Teachers College Record, Dr. Michelle Knight-Manuel speaks of the absence of critical voices at the grassroots level when it comes to formulating educational policy. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. populace, as captured by findings of the 2020 U.S. Census, a critical question is: How do staff, teachers, and students understand and experience the impact of formal education on their life chances? Although research on education often aggregates stakeholder experience, its critical to deconstruct such categorizations in order to account for divergent experiences and cultivate antiracist strategies.
Community colleges enroll the majority of students of color entering postsecondary education. Yet, not only are community colleges underresearched, but the voices of staff, faculty, and students are often left out. While a substantial body of research has been conducted on community colleges during the past 20 years that is far more nuanced than Burton Clarks initial cooling-out perspective,2 we are still missing a systematic view on the part of those laboring within and attending these colleges. One of the reasons for this is the tendency for those outside these institutions to engage in the research and command the conversations that ensue.
One place where, ironically, the voice of students and staff on the front line is missing is the student success literature. Although research has shown what organizational inputs might enhance student completion, little has been written regarding the quagmire that part-time students, who typically constitute 2/3 of all community college students in the United States, face as they balance often precarious employment and entrenched family responsibilities. The enrollment woes brought on by COVID-19 brought this stark disconnect to the fore. As community college administrators throughout the country are trying to respond to the deep enrollment and FAFSA submission declines over the past year and a half, there has been little effort to reach out to the students who have discontinued their education or put it on hold. To adequately respond to the needs of students, we have to hear from students and those who field their questions, quell their anxieties, and work earnestly to keep them coming back in the classrooms and offices in our nations community colleges.
As community college practitioners, we applaud the plethora of research that has arisen about community colleges in the last 20 years. Organizations such as the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Achieving the Dream have advanced our knowledge of best practices immeasurably and constitute what we are calling the student success literature. The funding of research and programming designed to respond to the retention and completion challenges is a necessary part. At the same time, we are struck by the voices often unheardthose of community college practitioners in what is studied, and how and for what purposes. Many practitioners are dubious of the proposed innovations as the equity panaceas they are claimed to be. Research and advocacy organizations, such as the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, are paving the way to understanding the lives and holistic needs of college students beyond the classroom. Perhaps with such a strong advocate and champion of community colleges, especially for our most precarious students, as Dr. Jill Biden has been, there will be an opening of the conversation to those previously left out.
We see this commentary series as one important part, the purpose of which is to focus on community colleges, especially in terms of a perspective of how students, faculty, and administrators experience in community colleges. We represent divergent positioning with community colleges.
Robin is currently professor of sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services and Criminal Justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), which is part of the CUNY system. She has spent over 20 years teaching community college students, and her research interests have examined student success in community college, both in the classroom and at the institutional level. Her book The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community Colleges was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in December 2021.
David entered the world of community colleges initially as an associate professor of sociology at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills in 1992. Soon thereafter, he migrated to the dark side, serving as a dean, then as academic VP, and now is in his 17th year as a community college president. He is the general editor of Education and Sociology: An Encyclopedia (with Peter W. Cookson, Jr., and Alan R. Sadovnik, Routledge Falmer, 2002) and author of Community Colleges: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2005).
Although we experience community colleges from different vantage points, we converge as celebrants of the sociological imagination. A sociological imagination, stated C. Wright Mills, allows for the understanding of biographical experiences within a social context. As such, we are interested in questions such as: How do the organizational structures of community colleges, especially as they undergo significant reforms, impact students, and how does the agency of stakeholders modify these structures? The birds-eye views from within the classroom and administrative offices must be a part of these conversations.
The student success movement writ large has focused on an array of reforms promoted by a range of community college organizations, leaders, and philanthropic entities. Where Robin worksCUNYhas been a petri dish for many of these reforms, ranging from ASAP and Guided Pathways to massive remediation reforms. And as a native New Yorker and committed community college leader, David has long been enamored with these initiatives.
An important issue throughout this series is equity, especially as we think about the valuable roles that community colleges serve amid the currents of reforms that have taken hold. As such, equity must be central as we continue to think about how these vitally important institutions should evolve in the coming years. We hope that this series offers something new in our attempts to bring together a multiplicity of perspectives to weigh in on some of the most important issues confronting community colleges right now. As we think about what community colleges should be and for whom, often the framing is an either/or proposition. The focus, then, becomes narrowly limited to completion or student learning, or vocational or liberal arts. Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of our silos that separate those who teach from those who lead. Over the next three months, we hope to provide a platform that highlights diverse viewpoints on equity and community colleges.
To carry this out, we have chosen a set of nine topics that will be featured, and we have asked an array of community college practitionersteachers, advisors, mentors, and researchersas well as those who serve in some leadership capacity, to offer their perspectives. We have several objectives in mind, but perhaps the most important is to create a model of substantive dialogue between people with different relationships to community colleges. Our desire to hear from more people, we hope, will enhance the discussions about what community colleges do and for whom. We have also included some voices of those who began their higher educational journey at a community college and what that has meant to them; this serves as a reminder of what is at stake and what is lost when research on and decisions around community colleges leaves out all those who have experience and expertise to share.
In the first week, our contributors offer their research, experience, and expertise on the importance of centering student learning in how we restructure our community colleges. They offer important insights into what often gets lost in our data-centered culture of higher education. We then turn our attention to remedial reforms, featuring community college faculty who teach developmental classesone of whom has also served in the administration of his community college. In the third week, we consider how to achieve equity with respect to the process of transferring from a community college to a baccalaureate institution. Following this, we focus on the importance of community college practitioners conducting research on community colleges, featuring a piece from both faculty and college leaders. Because so much of what we know about community colleges comes from research conducted by those outside these institutions, this too becomes an important equity issue.
The importance of supporting community college faculty research and pedagogy cannot be overstated. We feature two pieces on the important disciplinary work that creates a sense of belonging for both faculty and students. Ever mindful of the significance of faculty conducting research projects that move our disciplines further and enhance our classrooms, we also invited two faculty members who have received American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Mellon fellowships to share their research projectsprojects that would have not been possible without grants like these. The breadth of their projects speaks to the importance of having more of these opportunities to support the research and creative work of community college faculty. In the following week, we consider the free community college movement from the perspective of a college president and faculty member. Finally, the last topic in the series attempts to move away from the deficit lens through which community college students (and practitioners) are often seen, without ignoring or rendering invisible the real challenges that students bring with them. We will close out the series with a concluding commentary, tying together the topics, taking stock of what we can glean, and returning, of course, to Dr. Knight-Manuels quest for broadening what we know by inviting more to the table.
American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 65, No. 6 (May, 1960), pp. 569-576