‘Doors Closing’

You know that announcement on mass transit as the train is about to take off? “Doors closing,” a pleasant voice warns. I am always struck by the irrational fear that if I don’t move, and quickly, I’m going to get caught in those doors.

But there’s nothing pleasant about Gary Rhoades’s warning in the new report, Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who’s Not Going to (Community) College? (available as a PDF). As the community-college sector becomes increasingly constrained in achieving its access mission, who is responsible for keeping the door open for underserved students?, he wonders. Rhoades, who directs the Center for the Future of Higher Education, which published the report, calls for faculty, students, community groups, and unions to work together, along with policymakers and college administrators, to advocate on behalf of community colleges.

It’s a great idea, yet I have to wonder if it will address the underlying structural issues. By way of analogy, I began to reflect on how institutions often handle issues of inclusion and diversity. Often, once there is a designated person or department whose entire job is “diversity,” the organizational expectation is that the diversity “job” is done. Too often, such departments are expected to make all issues go away, while the institution itself is unwilling to make the structural changes that would make it truly inclusive.

Are community colleges the diversity departments of higher education? It’s not a hard case to make, given the disproportionate number of students from historically underserved groups that attend community colleges. Not to mention the paucity of students from those groups at the four-year level, whose numbers become more sparse the more elite the institution.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many talented and committed leaders, faculty, staff, and students in community colleges, and in diversity departments. But talent and commitment are not enough. Rhoades cites the six-volume Zook Commission’s report, Higher Education for American Democracy (from 1948): “There must be developed in this country the widespread realization that money expended for education is the wisest and soundest of investments in the national interest. The democratic community cannot tolerate a society based upon education for the well-to-do alone.”

If local, state, and federal policies refuse to deal with the structural issues around access to postsecondary education, no amount of talent and commitment will keep the door from shutting out increasing numbers of students, likely from the least advantaged among us. And that is no irrational fear.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Charles Williams.]

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