Below is an article/blog entry written for an Academic Academy I recently joined. I encourage all of you to check out their website, https://heterodoxacademy.org/. This is an organization committed to: enhancing the quality and impact of research — and improving education — by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning. I am leading a breakfast discussion at their conference in New York City in June. Many members of this wonderful academy are from “elite” schools and I decided to write a blog entry concerning the vital role of community colleges in their efforts. It is long…I hope you appreciate the read!
As an enthusiastic new member of HxA, I am just beginning to scratch the surface of everything this academy entails. HxA’s mission of promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement are wonderful ideals for which I fully stand and support. I would go as far as to say my personal mission in life aligns in perfection, while, like a Pavlonian puppy, I salivate to the bell of these rhetorical principles. As I continue to read and listen, I would like to suggest more directed efforts towards the dissemination of these values toward one of our largest populations of students in the country, the community college system, most renowned within my home state of California.
In light of the recent allegations of widespread scandal in the collegial admissions processes for wealthy—though otherwise potentially unqualified—students, perhaps it is time to shed light on institutions that truly function on the premise of an entirely even playing field.
The California Community College system is the largest in the country and routinely accounts for nearly fifty percent of all college students in the state. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “Compared to other states, California relies more heavily on community colleges and less on four-year institutions—the state ranks fifth nationwide in the share of recent high school graduates who enroll in community colleges and 47th in the share who start at four-year schools.” As of 2018, there were 980 public community colleges in the United States. In 2016, about 5.8 million students were enrolled in public 2-year postsecondary institutions across the U.S.
However one wants to dice up and decipher these numbers, community colleges account for a very large population of our country’s postsecondary students; students that cannot afford to be overlooked when it comes to the mission set forth by HxA and other like-minded organizations in this time of growing political incivility and unrest.
To preface, I am a community college Professor of Communication Studies at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA. I am currently in my thirteenth year as a tenured professor, though had decades of experience as an adjunct professor in various public and private colleges as well as universities in the Southern California area. Having no one in my blue-collar family of origin attend college, nor even believe in the value of higher education, you can only imagine how deeply grateful and indebted I feel toward the California Community College system. It was within this system, Los Angeles Valley College specifically, that I found my voice as a student, was taught to critically think, while being offered both wonderful academic and life guidance from very caring faculty members.
The community college system gave this blue collar demographic a chance at a higher education. It was my first, and as I will explain, most powerful exposure to higher levels of critical thought and analysis. Therefore, I confess upfront that I am an elite academy “outsider.” Aside from having two of my children attend top tier schools (Chapman University and The King’s College London) I am not on the inside looking out rather the outside looking in. I defer all elite academy expertise to those in the elite trenches. One might say I am a representative of the “common” academies. However, and as we shall see, many of my observations are supported by the “elite” insiders: insiders who are deftly familiar with this context of academia.
The Atlantic recently reported: “In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year).”
Anthony Jack, assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing The Disadvantaged Students, suggests, “We have been teaching students from more privileged backgrounds for so long, that we take a lot for granted on a college campus. Mental health offices, career service offices, they are so used to students being more proactive and entering their doors because they’ve been taught that if you want something, you go out and get it. The fact that you have to go seek things out, that’s an unspoken rule on a college campus that disproportionately hurts low-income students from disadvantaged high schools. There is a bias towards privilege on a college campus that permeates so many things that we do.”
Culturally speaking, due to its socioeconomic homogeneity, the community college context is the most socially inviting and habitable environment for many disadvantaged students, even those who possess the academic prowess to attend an elite university.
As will be referred to later in this essay, paying more attention to these “common” academies can better address the growing disparity between elite universities and two/four year state schools: a disparity that primarily rests not on intellect, rather student wealth inequality. In recent years, I understand several elite academies have worked with great intention to provide the promise of an elite education for all those deemed worthy: wealthy and poor alike. However, though such efforts are certainly respected, it would seem the issue of wealth inequality is still very much present in academia as a whole.
HxA, as well as others who share these core values, would be remiss to downplay the importance of our country’s community college system in the quest to instill civil free speech dialogue in our institutions. Aside from the inequality expressed above, there exists three fundamental reasons to promote HxA energies towards this system: First, community colleges possess the power of the educational primacy effect for its great many students; second, is home to extremely wide diverse student population by nearly every conceivable measure; and, finally, are institutions committed first and foremost to the teaching and interaction with all types of students, not just the traditionally academic and/or those with orthodox academic skill sets.
Psychology, and now neuroscience, informs us that early initial encounters with others lead us to form an initial expectancy about the people we meet. Once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact. For better or worse, once we have developed a schema, it becomes very difficult to change it.
To analogize, the community college has the advantage of the educational primacy effect in many college students’ lives. For most students, it is the beginning phase of learning how to think critically. Each year the state of California transfers over one hundred thousand students to four-year colleges and universities throughout the country. These students have already formed their collegial identity; they have cut their teeth on issues related to free speech and freedom of expression, and have been exposed to both destructive (unfortunately) and constructive disagreement. This initial exposure to higher education has a tremendous impact on students and the future trajectory of their education and career choices.
Many of our students in the communication studies program have been trained to publicly advocate for various issues, engage in academic debate, and have learned the value of civil discourse. These students are going to have a large voice in their future respective universities and will have great influence in achieving HxA objectives. I am routinely impressed by observing the amount of growth, maturity and academic prowess many students achieve in their short time within our system. Students who are now fundamentally ready to make a difference, not only in four-year colleges and university systems, but also in their overall duty of the citizenry in general.
As for those students who may never transfer for any variety of reasons, many of these students would have never been exposed to critical thought and analysis in any type of formal sense were it not for this system. As for those students who have landed at a community college by default and do not finish their programs, it is this institution alone that has the only opportunity of imparting higher-level critical thinking skills to an otherwise completely uneducated population.
Diverse Student Populations
In regards to the community college environment, one must consider that these establishments are home to extremely diverse student populations, such as the historically disenfranchised, the underrepresented, and, in many cases, the impoverished—all populations that must be given an opportunity for voice. Some have opined that the only true diversity at elite schools exists in race and ethnicity; as far as social class, there is little diversity at all.
If the Millennial and Gen Z American minds are currently the product of excessive coddling, as Jonathon Haidt suggests, consider the community college students the least victimized in this current pandemic of over sensitivity. Though I know of no such studies, anecdotally speaking the most striking examples of virtue signaling and call out culture appear to come from the more elite universities. While these students are reaching for social status and self-actualization, our students are figuring out how to meet their lower level needs and surmise where they are going to fit within the larger social structure.
At our campus, we have a program for our homeless student population—probably not a group largely represented at the elite academies. The majority of students who go off to elite schools or even four-year colleges typically have a built-in support network on which to rely. At Crafton Hills, many of our students will not eat if they do not work; which is why we have a food bank on campus for our hungry students. Perhaps we may consider this food bank our version of a “safe space” for students who suffer from food insecurities.
A significant portion of our student population is academically prepared and qualified for the university, yet has either not qualified for financial aid or has lacked the necessary guidance to lead one through the bureaucratic maze of administrative paperwork to do so. For each class I teach, I typically have students who have been accepted into the UC, or other four-year systems, though their source of funding was withdrawn at last moment. In addition, though administrative policy does not allow us to know this number specifically, with our campus slightly over fifty percent Latino in Southern California, we surmise a significant undocumented student population as well.
On the flip side, we also have a student population with some affluence. Many of these students, who elect to stay in the area, attend the University of Redlands with dual enrollment at Crafton Hills. Insofar as age, our primary student population is between the ages of eighteen and twenty four, yet it is not at all unusual for classes to have students of all ages with many different generations, political orientations and life experiences all represented. With this amount of campus diversity, it is not at all difficult to encounter contrarian points of view on any number of issues.
Classroom Focus and Reaching the Traditionally Non-Academic
Allow me to preface this final section with a couple of observations. First off, we are all hugely indebted to the wonderful and insightful research and subsequent publications generated by our elite universities. Simply, I could not do my job without the contributions of elite scholarship. I would consider most of my courses rife with “elite” curriculum; that is consisting of research produced by elite academies. In my area of communication studies, in particular critical thinking, Harvard’s Steven Pinker as well as Duke’s Dan Ariely have profoundly shaped my curriculum. Elite universities benefit the entire higher educational system. Secondly, I know from personal experience that both excellent and poor instruction exists at all colleges and universities, for a large variety of reasons. The most influential (and conversely uninfluential) professors in my education were found in the two-year College, four-year University, and graduate school contexts (albeit none considered “elite.”).
In the attempt to extol the value of the community college system and its need for HxA values, it is necessary to critique what may be some of the shortcomings of the elite university system. The elite university system is certainly not a one-size-fits-all system and is not an alternative for many types of students. The elite universities are reaching a certain type of elite, in some cases an “intellectual elite,” and in many cases the wealthy elite, while the idea of multiple intelligences would suggest that one with a high degree of, say, kinesthetic or interpersonal intelligence, would likely not be highly desired at these elite schools.
There are those who go as far as to address the disadvantages of an “elite” education. The American Scholar recently republished an article from Alumnus of Yale and Columbia, William Deresiewicz, in which he observed of elite students, “Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.”
As for those who may end up at an institution like a community college? Deresiewicz continues:
“They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.”
Perhaps unlike Deresiewicz, I believe we need “world-class hoop jumpers” within the diverse mosaic of higher education. As well, we need the voices of the historically oppressed and disadvantaged. Together, we can unite in HxA principles and form alliances that cross socioeconomic lines.
One of the primary reasons I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of the community college education, is the opportunity to focus primarily on the classroom and student interaction versus the mandate of research and publications. To the best of my knowledge, there exists no concept of “publish or perish” within the community college system. Though we certainly have our fair share of out of the classroom duties to which we must attend, such as committee work and shared governance, our primary focus is the students and the students alone.
It is not at all uncommon for a student who transferred to a prestigious university to return only to observe the excellence of their classroom instruction at Crafton Hills. Of course this is a very generalized observation usually driven by one of several possible university experiences: classes with lecture halls of hundreds of students that lack personal attention from the professor; classes taught by a professor who may only teach to justify her first love of research; and/or classes taught by inexperienced graduate assistants and not seasoned instructors. Of course these will vary from institution to institution and, again, is not to suggest poor instruction does not exist at the community college level, it most certainly does, though it likely would not be generated for any of the above reasons.
Regardless of one’s political position on any number of matters, it is a fundamental American value that all voices be given a platform in a pluralistic, democratic society. We all must champion the cacophony of viewpoints from the historically disenfranchised, the underrepresented, and the impoverished. We all must champion the voice of the underdog. The Community College System, though a default alternative for some, remains a very important institution for those born without wealthy donor parents, those with limited academic choice, and who possess overall limited social privilege and capital.