Continuing the Dream

Here’s the scenario, dear educational colleagues: you are to meet with some newly empowered decision-makers, officials who are smart, curious and uninformed about community colleges. They want your guidance, particularly with all of the discussions at the federal level about enhanced funding for community colleges. They know about your interest in education and your expertise. They are eager to learn from you. It is not terribly difficulty to imagine. Most of those in positions of power and influence are graduates from selective baccalaureate institutions. Their family, friends and networks have probably attended similar institutions. Unless they were curious or some special circumstance redirected their educational journey, chances are slim that they would not have much meaningful interaction with a community college or community college students. Remember, too, that many community college students who move on to baccalaureate and graduate degrees do not trumpet their time at a community college.

Your new friends have asked you to recommend one book to give them reliable information about the community college sector. You start to mull this over. You want a reliable one-volume overview of the educational structure and system, the world of community colleges, a book that explains how twelve hundred institutions try to meet the needs of more than 40% of everyone in higher education. You would like it to be optimistic and positive, and also realistic, spelling out the many challenges community colleges and their students face daily. It needs to explain the great variety among institutions and students, just as effectively as it highlights the shared sense of mission and purposed across all community colleges. And your proposed book would be . . . .

Please let me make a suggestion. I recently revisited Gail Mellow and Cynthia Heelan’s 2008 book, Minding the Dream: The Process and Practice of the American Community College. Though quite a few years have passed since its publication, I was struck by just how relevant and comprehensive it remains. I first read it several years ago and was taken with its structure, scope and message. It captured the possibilities and challenges of community colleges, at the institutional level and within the larger higher education landscape. Reading it now, with more familiarity of what is and is not successful with community colleges, I am even more impressed. The authors highlight the critical issues that have stubbornly remained pertinent. Their analysis is spot on and it is detailed enough to convey complexity while staying accessible. It is, I believe, still the best comprehensive overview of community colleges in the United States. That is no small accomplishment.

In their introduction, Mellow and Heelan note that they designed the book for scholar-practitioners, a designation familiar to many in higher education. We want to do better, we want to be more effective – and we trust the tools of research and scholarship to direct us. They ground the book, and the collective work of all community colleges, in a historical and uniquely American context. We are rooted in the aspirational notions of the Truman Commission. Mellow and Heelan remind us about the lofty aims embedded in the very nature of community colleges. It is inspirational and yet, in many ways, unfulfilled. That is the underlying contrast that frames the book and the author’s approach to understanding community colleges. Our mission and objectives are idealistic; they are wonderful and reflect the best hopes of democracy. In practice, however, we fall short and are unable to realize this dream for many students. It is this tension, of promise and challenge, of ideal and what is happening on the ground, that defines the world and work of community colleges.

Minding the Dream has two primary sections: Process and Practice. In Process, the authors look at community colleges as a public good, emphasizing the challenges that come with advocating for community colleges’ many benefits. They provide a high-level overview of how community colleges are funded, how their effectiveness is measured (and the shortcomings of our current systems), community college governance, and chapters on pedagogy, leadership, and how community colleges in the US influence and compare with other nations’ systems. Each section has a similar structure, with an overview, a brief recounting of the idealistic “Dream,” a contrasting summary of the “Unfulfilled Dream,” a more detailed description of what things are really like, and a conclusion that ties up the issues neatly. If one were putting together a briefing book, this would be an apt format.

The book’s second section, Practice, has chapters on functions that help define community colleges as particular kinds of institution of higher education. These topics include developmental studies, the transfer experience, economic and workforce development, English as a second language, and programmatic challenges of diverse demographics (non-traditional students as the mainstay of community colleges). The summary underscores the continued importance of mission and service: “Minding the dream of America’s community colleges requires us to enact the highest purpose of our intentions to make a high-quality education available to all.”

Gail Mellow, now retired president of LaGuardia Community College, has long been a north star for community colleges. Her informed advocacy for the good work of community colleges, her passion for students, faculty, and the transformative power of learning – coupled with her expectations that we all can find ways to make things better – remain vitally important to our work and the larger understanding of community colleges. Another thanks to her and Cynthia Heelan. I hope, too, that many continue to read and appreciate Minding the Dream.

As for your imagined friends, after they read Minding the Dream they will learn that community colleges are extraordinary complex institutions that work at the front lines of issues of access, opportunity, equity, and democracy itself. That means that resources – money and attention – are paramount. Of equal importance, they will appreciate that money alone will not solve address all problems and issues. Like the practice of American democracy itself, effective community colleges and their practice is an ever-changing, unfolding journey. It is, as Mellow and Heelan stress, a public good and a noble dream.

David Potash

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