Common Ground for a People Divided:
Let’s Start with Community College
The Presidential and Vice Presidential debates left supporters of each candidate convinced that their candidate had won and wondering how on earth any reasonable person could possibly vote for that wretched disaster on the other side. Plus ça change ….
November’s election will come and go, and we all will move on, one way or another. Few of us will move to Canada or disown those family members who pathetically voted for that jerk. Neighbors whose lawns now sport signs for opposing candidates will chuck the signs, shaking their heads at how the otherwise smart and decent people next door could be so foolish, but will continue watching out for them and their property, loaning and borrowing milk and the odd yard tool.
As we near the close of an election cycle understandably focused more on character flaws than on differences in ideology, I have been thinking about our differences, emotions, and needs. But the bottom line is that once we’ve settled on a president, we’ll need to find common ground. We are, after all, in this together.
And we are a big We. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties on a Philadelphia rowhouse block, my working-class playmates were African-, Jewish-, Irish-, Italian-American. Others possessed less apparent hyphens. My French Canadian waitress single mother wore hand-me-downs and relied on public transportation so that I could attend good Catholic schools, which served me well until I took the Sixties zeitgeist as a green light for mediocrity and barely made it through high school. Only the city’s newest college accepted me, and there I began the relationship with Community College of Philadelphia as a student and eventually as a counselor and English professor that changed everything for me and for my family. My story played out in Philly, but the same kind of thing has happened everywhere you find community colleges.
For forty years of adulthood, my life was measured in semesters, practically all spent working in the underappreciated, often degraded and even mocked academic setting of the community college. Yet, every May at the College’s Academic Awards Ceremony, I heard stories of success earned against odds by people who, absent a community college, might be living far more limited lives. These were everyday heroes worthy of a Hollywood bio-pic script, and I had the privilege of teaching them. For them and for many others across the nation, community college worked.
Community college worked for J. Craig Venter, whose work with gene sequencing could change the treatment of disease; for filmmaker George Lucas; writers Amy Tan, Oscar Hijuelos, and Gwendolyn Brooks; actor Tom Hanks; astronauts Eileen Collins and Fred W. Haise; and four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Carol Guzy. Everywhere they exist, these colleges do good for their community, and their graduates do well. When my students transferred to Penn, Temple, Minnesota, and Bryn Mawr and then moved on to graduate school, I saw this for myself. Last week, I visited my alma mater. The giant banner draped over its 17th Street entrance featured a Commencement Day photograph, in which I recognized a student from my last semester’s Honors class who has since graduated from Bucknell University.
Stories of redemption, hope, and achievement appeal to all of us, regardless of the election signs in front of our houses. Americans admire quality in work and celebrate underdog triumphs. But sometimes we fail to notice or we misunderstand what is right before our eyes, namely ourselves. Community colleges are ours, and we are the people there. So, allow me to speak about community colleges in the first-person plural.
Our reach exceeds what you probably imagine. We serve so many subpopulations that there is no such thing as a typical community college student. Data from the American Association of Community Colleges (2014) showed that 45% of American college students attended community college, so we serve a huge swath of Americans. From workforce training to honors program preparation for transfer to four-year universities, we help Americans move forward. A significant percentage of medical school students attended community college, more than one-third in the case of Latinos, so we provide a pipeline to advanced study for many Americans.
Students from all corners of the city and from around the world, students from every age group and socio-economic level prosper at community colleges. One of my last students, for some time now a single parent who’d been on both sides of shooting crimes as a teenager, found meaning and direction at Community College of Philadelphia. “I’m doing this for my little daughter,” he told me, but his success benefits all of us.
I can list statistics that demonstrate the value of community colleges, but for me, it’s personal and it’s family. My son grew intellectually in the College’s Honors program. My wife, already holder of an MA in deaf education at the time and an experienced teacher, turned to the College’s RN program (“The hardest academic work I’ve ever done”) in order to change careers, leading to rewarding years in labor and delivery and then in hospice nursing. When my mother, who’d left school at fourteen to help support her eight younger brothers and sisters, became disabled after decades of restaurant work, she enrolled in courses at Community College, and soon was raving at dinner about Michelangelo, Abraham Maslow, and her wonderful Italian professor.
Community college tuition amounts to a fraction of the fees at other more prestigious colleges and universities. And that investment pays off, even for students who do not transfer to a four-year institution. Based on large-scale studies from six states, the average student who completes an associate degree at a community college will earn $5,400 more each working year than a student who drops out of community college. As a counselor, I shared this kind of information with students. And so did my daughter when she served a graduate school counseling internship at the College and held a temporary position in the College’s Center on Disability.
Affordable education does not equate with low-quality when it comes to us. For middle-class, working-class, and poverty-level Americans, we provide a safe harbor and a launching pad, especially for students whose high school served as neither. For many Americans, we offer a chance for reinvention and redemption.
And we don’t saddle students or their parents with a lifetime of debt. As a seventeen-year-old Community College of Philadelphia freshman, I worked part time as a produce clerk at the A & P during the semesters and full time in the summers, but that didn’t cover all of my educational costs. Fortunately, the tuition was within reach for my mother, who happily paid most of it for me. We need to make sure the cost of community college lies within the reach of those who need it most.
I taught English courses. But really I taught independence. And that makes sense to people of all political perspectives.
We don’t have to (and won’t) agree about all the nuts and bolts concerning community colleges. Reasonable people may debate issues such as whether or not college tuition should be free, but the community college remains an underappreciated and important national resource that deserves our support. In this time when even good neighbors question each other’s sense and when finding common ground proves so challenging, the other local college that belongs to us all and that you might know mostly through jokes provides an educational tradition in which we can take pride and which we can rally behind. Learning about us is a first step.
Author and teacher Ned Bachus earned multiple teaching awards during his 38-year career at Community College of Philadelphia, including the Christian and Mary Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. His book of short stories, City of Brotherly Love, received the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. His crowdfunded memoir, Open Admissions: What Community College Teaching Taught Me About Learning, will be published by Wild River Books in 2017.