Community College: The Great Equalizer?

Community College: The Great Equalizer?

Even if community colleges were fully funded, students could still face a curriculum and styles of instruction that reinforce their unequal position in the social order.

(Tai's Captures/Unsplash)

As we were putting the final edits into this essay, we received news that Mike Rose had died at the age of seventy-seven. During his forty-year teaching career, he wrote movingly about his students and their experiences in the classroom. His empathy and insights were informed by his background as a child of working-class immigrants. We were proud to publish a number of his essays and to work with him in 2011 on a special section he co-edited for Dissent on “Re-imagining Education Reform.” —The Editors


In the American consciousness, education is, in Horace Mann’s words, the “great equalizer” of class differences. Through schooling, students can ascend the social-economic ladder. The journey of first-generation community college students provides one way to consider this belief. As inequality widens and rigidifies, what economic barriers to success do such students face?

Let us begin with the basic objects it takes to go to school: books, paper, notebooks, pens and pencils, calculator, computer, cell phone, tools, and supplies. Some of these items might be covered by financial aid awarded to needy students, though that aid can be late in coming. It is not uncommon for students to be in the second or third week of classes without books. For students in occupational programs—from construction trades to cosmetology—tools and kits of supplies are essential. If they are damaged or stolen, students have to divert money from other necessities or cast about for an emergency loan. Unless students are in an unusually well-funded program, they are typically on their own for computers and other electronic devices.

Inequality is not only material but also spatial. To be a successful student takes a place to study, to read those books, to write, to practice the skills and routines of a trade. Though COVID-19 closed down many buildings, there are usually designated spaces on campus for those whose family and work commitments and transportation arrangements permit their use. Otherwise, one hopes for a room. A nook. A corner of an apartment—not always possible if one lives in close quarters with family or friends. One student I mentored read his books with a flashlight on the front steps of his parents’ apartment. Another student I interviewed set a little table in one of her halfway house’s bathrooms—a table of her own.

Some students have no stable place to lay that book at all. According to the #RealCollege Survey of the Hope Center at Temple University in 2020, 52 percent of students at two-year colleges reported being “housing insecure.” They are short on rent, close to eviction, or they have crossed that line, staying temporarily with relatives or friends or couch surfing, one step away from the streets. Another student I mentored slept in his car for six months until one of his instructors secured him Section 8 housing and bought him bedding and towels. A student he knew slept behind the dumpster in the back of the school’s library. They showered in the gym when it opened at 6 a.m.

According to the #RealCollege Survey, 39 percent of community college students report worrying about having enough to eat. Food pantries exist at over 700 two- and four-year colleges across the country. The experience of poverty includes several sensations: the gnawing in your stomach, woozy lightheadedness. For students with a family, the gnawing can be psychological as well as physical. They worry that they have failed as a parent. Access to healthcare, let alone quality healthcare, is also a major problem in low-income communities. Students growing up in such communities are generally exposed to environmental toxins and might not have been adequately treated for chronic diseases like diabetes or asthma, or for dental, vision, and hearing problems. Universal standard eyecare alone would have a positive effect on these students’ retention and achievement.

For students with ADHD and learning disabilities, the odds are that the treatment they receive is not of the same quality and consistency as that of their more affluent peers—and it is highly unlikely that they get the added benefit of private remedial programs or tutors. Over the years, I have worked with many college students, especially older, returning students, who have some kind of cognitive processing difficulty but have never been introduced to compensatory strategies and cognitive work-arounds. Some students contend with mental illness or addiction. A significant number of students from low-income communities have also experienced or witnessed things on the streets or in their families or at the hands of law enforcement that no young person should bear, which leave scars physical and spiritual that can affect their performance in school.

As they enter college, students from all income levels find themselves facing academic and social demands for which they are not prepared. For students from under-resourced schools, whose families could not afford the educational products and services available to their middle-class peers, there is a greater chance they will need assistance to meet the analytical reading, writing, and mathematical requirements of their classes. It is also possible that they won’t have been taught subject-area knowledge that is prerequisite for coursework, from biology to music to the construction trades.

When students are the first in their family to go to college, a predictable unfamiliarity with institutional practices—from how to get financial aid information to how to use professors’ office hours—can slide into a feeling of overall incompetence. “There’s no fucking way I belong here,” an older student said to me after a few difficult weeks in an introductory math class.

Addressing economic and social inequality will be a massive national undertaking, for it will involve everything from monetary policy and tax reform to rebuilding the social safety net. The more modest goal of lifting some of the weight off of the students we’ve been discussing will also be demanding. It begins with increased financial aid and the establishment of emergency grant and loan programs. If they don’t already, colleges need to provide child care and assist in connecting students with social service agencies for food, housing, and healthcare. Also, colleges can schedule classes, counseling, and tutorials to be more hospitable for students who work or have families; many of the online options made available and expanded during the pandemic should be extended. Some colleges have already undertaken these remedies, which complement longer-term efforts to improve remedial instruction, create programs for vulnerable student populations, and restructure and consolidate curriculum—all efforts to address the fact that the community college completion rate of a certificate or degree is under 40 percent.

To do right by these students, however, we have to go beyond the fiscal and structural to the level of foundational beliefs. We need a full picture of their lives in order to serve them well. There is a tendency to understand and define lower-income people by and through their poverty. We confuse the burdens they carry with who they are. For students who live within the oppressive boundaries of structural inequality, the pressing need to make a buck constrains the means they have available to give expression to their full humanity. But within those constraints, students continue to dream, solve problems, make plans, and work toward a meaningful future. It is that fuller expression of their humanity they seek by going to college.


The majority of low-income students come to college with the firm goal of improving their economic lot in life, from earning certificates in short-term occupational programs to achieving an associate degree and transferring to a four-year college or university. For some, this desire to get ahead is articulated through a particular subject or occupation, a desire to be a chef or a nurse, a graphic artist or an engineer—careers that bring financial reward but also involve humanitarian, aesthetic, or intellectual values. Some students with families of their own want to be better educated so they can help their kids and become role models. Some who are returning to school want to remedy what they see as past failure, a nagging source of shame. And some, young and not-so-young, feel stuck in their lives, trapped in dead-end jobs or unable to find steady work at all. They are desperate to chart a new path. These and other forces in their lives carry them forward, a potent blend of economic, familial, and deeply personal motives.

Being in college itself can be powerfully motivating, giving rise to new reasons to continue. Though some classes seem useless and just an administrative hurdle; others engage you. You learn to use tools and instruments that expand what you can do. The interests that contributed to your coming to college are stimulated: human behavior, or gaming and new media, or fashion, or robotics, or the history of your people. These interests are being developed; you are becoming knowledgeable. In some cases, you are learning new ways to talk about and examine your own life and the lives around you. “I am learning the terms of the misery I lived,” an older student tells me. Or you discover, perhaps to your great surprise, subjects and careers you didn’t know about. You’re meeting new people, maybe people with backgrounds unfamiliar to you, people from other countries who rattle your biases. You’re also meeting people with interests and goals similar to yours—you begin to form a small community of support. This community can include faculty and staff, people who are part of the educational and occupational networks you need to enter. You are in the game, learning about college and how to “do college,” which is not at all a trivial thing in an education- and credential-oriented society.

The burning question that a number of community college personnel are trying to address is how to make these kinds of sustaining experiences available to more people entering their institutions, especially those who stand to benefit the most in terms of economic and social mobility: low-income, first-generation college-goers. Their experiences have implications beyond the community college.

I began this essay with the many economic barriers community college students face—finding ways to overcome these obstacles is phenomenally important. But if tomorrow a public policy miracle occurred and financial aid, an emergency grant program, and a range of social services were fully funded and available, and community colleges were able to offer all needed courses and counseling, students trying to advance their prospects could still face a curriculum and styles of instruction that reinforce rather than liberate them from their unequal position in the social order. In education we have a troubling history of imagining the working-class student as a bundle of characteristics that reflect deep biases. These students, the thinking goes, are practical and pragmatic, “concrete thinkers” concerned with tangible financial outcomes, not intellectually inclined, not taken with ideas or abstractions or subjects typically thought to be “academic.” This cluster of ideas about student ability, motives, and interests becomes a kind of common sense that affects everything from the allocation of resources to the content of curriculum to the ideas students hold about themselves.

We have long told a story to ourselves about going to college: that young people on the cusp of adulthood leave home for a place (with old brick buildings covered with ivy) to study a subject that interests them, and perhaps discover new interests. They will read, and meet new people, and form lasting networks of friends—and, yes, party, and get into mild trouble, and gain a broken heart. This is a time of growth, of exploration, of “finding oneself,” of reflection on the big existential questions. In contrast, much of what is imagined for the community college student in popular and policy discourse is pragmatic and focused on economic outcomes—the prototypical student aiming toward secure employment and a career. This is especially the case where older students are concerned. If there is a language of discovery in this portrayal, it has to do with discovering the right occupation, the best fit with one’s interests and resources.

There’s truth to this portrait, as far as it goes. The adolescent-going-off-to-college scenario presupposes financial security and relative freedom from obligation. It is a scenario steeped in privilege that most community college students lack. But first-generation community college students still have the same human need to comprehend what is happening to them, to think things through, to reflect on their future. We have to be vigilant to not let the economic urgency of their situation reduce them to one-dimensional beings. As economics is lived, it is not sealed off from psychological and social needs or, for that matter, from moral questions about how to lead our lives. But you will not find in policy documents related to the community college any significant discussion of reflection, contemplation, or discovery—other than discovery related to occupation.

Therein lies a problem as old as Aristotle’s denial that slaves and other manual workers had the capacity to reflect philosophically: we slide so easily from a focus on work and economic need to attributions about people’s minds.

The language and personnel involved in the creation of an opportunity for reflection at community college might be quite different from that of an Ivy League school. Community colleges will need to be administratively supple and innovative in scheduling this opportunity, for there are so many demands on students’ lives. They need to be given the time to make sense of this key juncture in their development, to reflect on the decisions that lie before them in the educational journey they’ve undertaken. These decisions could have life-changing consequences for them and their families. Such change involves not only questions of resources and commitments but also questions of meaning and value: What is good work? What is the relation of the work I do to who I am and who I want to be? How do these decisions affect my sense of myself as a husband or wife, mother or father?

The resources colleges need to give students room to contemplate these questions might not be forthcoming. But colleges can right now begin to examine their own assumptions about their students. A worthy response to those students’ pressing needs will require an educational imagination that draws on the full range of their experience and ability.

Mike Rose was on the faculty of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. He was author, most recently, of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, Tenth Anniversary Edition.