Opinion: Building a Pipeline to Opportunity -- Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Community college can be a great asset for a late-bloomer like me and an essential 'learning community' for disadvantaged youth
I attended community college as part of my post-secondary attainment experience. There, I said it. In all the interviews, résumés compiled, and casual conversation over the years, never have I brought up my attendance at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for a couple of semesters. Never had to really.
In the late 1970s the City University of New York started a program called CUNY B.A., and I was fortunate to be accepted. It was a great opportunity for a late-bloomer like me. I could go to community college, or any of the CUNY senior colleges, improve my grades, and the credits would automatically go toward a B.A. degree at my home institution, Brooklyn College. No need for articulation agreements between a community college and a four-year institution.
It was and still is, I understand, a great path to opportunity. The selective institutions that I subsequently attended for graduate school never asked about the credits from Medgar Evers. As far as they were concerned, my home college had standing and granted a B.A.
I have not had much reason to reflect on the process that allowed me, someone with limited financial means and a lackluster high school record, to get a chance to explore the wealth of intellectual assets offered by CUNY. As time progressed, these precious assets, mainly faculty and staff, opened my personal horizons, and allowed me to get a quality degree and live the American dream.
A recent personal milestone (yes, those pesky birthdays) has given me pause and time to reflect on how fortunate I am but how tenuous a path it was getting to that fortune. If you believe in the American dream you cannot help but be concerned that it is getting more and more unattainable. The evidence on our growing income inequality has spawned a growth industry with those who say it is a problem and those who say it is not. I don’t want to focus on that debate here, as important as it is.
Opportunity and economic mobility are the questions for me. Will the next young person with potential and ambition, but scant opportunity and access, get the same chance that I did? The fact is that post-secondary attainment, which is the precursor to economic mobility, is a problem for many in New Jersey -- especially the rural and urban poor.
Yes, some are challenged by the lack of financial resources, but many others are dissuaded by the complex information and forms needed to apply to college these days. Still others are first-generation students with little “college knowledge,” which further tests their will to apply and succeed in a post-secondary environment. And we have to face the fact that many disadvantaged young people live in poor circumstances and attend not-so-great schools.
The list of barriers for least advantaged students seeking post-secondary attainment is almost too much to believe anything can be done. But as Alexis de Tocqueville said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
One way that we have tried to repair our faults and provide opportunity is through the community college system. Often derided as a refuge for those who could not cut it at a four-year college, perceptions are now changing. The rising cost of a college education has made community college a viable option for many middle-class families. Adjacently, with steady investment by the federal government, many community colleges have become drivers of local and regional economic development and are training local workers for better positions in the U.S. and world economy.
Here in New Jersey, we have our share of great community colleges. I will not risk offense by singling any one of them out. But the county community colleges serve more than, 89,000 noncredit-bearing students, and over 46,000 students in customized workforce training. In many instances, these institutions have articulation agreements with the state’s four-year public higher-education institutions, allowing all students to transfer in. The county colleges work for many categories of students in our state, but there is still the question of supporting disadvantaged students.
Essex County College (ECC), for example, has done a good job of improving the persistence and graduation rates of disadvantaged students by establishing relationships with high schools in the greater Newark area. ECC will assess students in certain schools on math, English, and writing. It will then work with principals and teachers to offer supplemental instruction that helps prepare students for college work.
Through this High School Initiative program, ECC provides college-readiness preparation for students in high school by allowing them to take developmental courses before they even graduate. If a placement exam shows that a student is in need of a developmental course, he or she has the option of enrolling in that course for high school credit. Courses may be administered at ECC or in the high school where teachers are trained to replicate the ECC course. Through this process, students in need of developmental curriculum are given an advantage; once they graduate high school, students who have already taken developmental math or English can jump right into college-level courses.
This serves the mission of ECC. Many of the young people will attend the institution, and working with area high schools is one way to increase the likelihood that their students will persist and graduate once they get to ECC.
ECC’s effort is time consuming and hard work and perhaps we should not expect it and other community colleges to shoulder all the work. Community colleges should be part of a persistence and graduation pipeline for disadvantaged students in which there is tight coordination between local schools, the community college, and four-year higher education institutions.
There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that moving disadvantaged students through college as a cohort (beyond the "class of" designation), commonly referred to in the literature as a “learning community,” has an important impact on student success. Cohort models provide a type of intense social, emotional, and academic support that nontraditional or disadvantaged students might need to thrive.
In order to encourage student engagement and motivation, each learning community is generally framed by one theme that can be used to establish a clear pathway for a particular field of study. So a typical cohort, to illustrate, might consist of 10 to 15 students with an interest in allied health professions, business, or law. Cohorts can be constituted as early as the ninth grade, and members receive intensive instructional support to increase their ability to master college material, along with help in mastering the college financial aid process.
The cohort can transition to the community college with continued support, including year-round and summer internships in its focus field. Some might decide to take their associate degree or a credential and not go on for a B.A. But the cohort pipeline should extend to area colleges that agree to be part of the initiative.
The innovation here is the working collaboration between three different educational processes. This college persistence pipeline that I suggest is a bit more intense and involved than my experience so many years ago. Yet the underlying goal is the same: building a pipeline to opportunity. This effort is more important for young people today. I may have faced some challenges, but there was never a time where I could not see hope around the corner. That is not the case for too many of our youth.