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Giving Second Chances at Community Colleges

In addition to my resolution to read more in my subject area in 2013, I’ve been reading more about education reform and policy. Mike Rose’s latest book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education (New Press), stood out as an important text to consider. I was so taken by this thoughtful book that I reached out to Rose, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was gracious enough to answer some of my questions by e-mail for Chronicle readers, and an edited version of the interview follows.

The focus of Back to School is nontraditional students, like some of those in my developmental-education classes. No matter what type of institution you are at, it’s worth remembering that there are more than 1,200 community colleges in this country that provide higher-education opportunities to those students and a wide range of others. I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of Back to School as part of your summer reading.

Q. Is there a downside to thinking of community colleges as second-chance institutions?

A. There are probably several potential liabilities in thinking of community colleges as “second chance” institutions. One very important function of the community college is to provide a local and affordable education for young people coming straight from high school—or almost straight from high school. They might be coming for an associate degree, or for an occupational certificate, or to transfer to another college.

Depending on the community college, there might be a larger or smaller percentage of these students, but your point still holds: The community college has multiple functions and serves multiple populations, not all of whom are seeking a second chance.

Another liability, sadly, has to do with status. Community colleges already have a status problem in the hierarchy of American higher education, which should trouble us on a lot of levels. And those people who are seeking a second (or third or fourth) chance at education are also, on average, a relatively powerless group. So this second-chance designation can have its downsides, to be sure.

But I want to be clear about something. I am not, by any means, trying to define the community college as solely a second-chance institution, not at all. As I just pointed out, the typical community college serves a wide range of students and purposes. It’s just that in Back to School I’m especially interested in those students who are seeking a fresh start on their education.

Q. You give readers some good ideas for making institutions more user friendly—signage, consolidated offices, etc. With minimal funds, what is the most important thing we can do to make campuses more accessible to students?

A. The most important first step in making a campus more accessible is trying to perceive the campus as different types of students might see it. This is one of the least-expensive things to do but one of the most difficult. What is it like to find your way around if you’re new to the campus, or haven’t been in school for decades, or don’t speak English all that well? What is the experience of applying for financial aid like? Of using the tutoring center? What’s it feel like to be in the first math class you’ve taken in 20 years?

Faculty and administrators can get a sense of all this by talking to students, by having student groups ask their constituencies, via surveys and focus groups. And then the challenge is incorporating the information you acquire—and I guarantee it will be surprising—into planning and decision making.

Q. What would you like readers to take away from Back to School? My copy is highlighted all over the place, both with ideas for implementation and simple statements I agree with.

A. There are several larger points I want to make.

  • The central social and economic importance of providing a second (or more than second) chance at some kind of education, and the importance of supporting these kinds of institutions.
  • The importance of people; of quality instruction; of counseling and mentoring; of doing the one little extra thing, offering that one extra sentence of encouragement.
  • The importance of rethinking remediation, improving it, but never forgetting that, in an unequal society, we’ll always need some kind of mechanism to help bring people up to speed.
  • Rethinking the sharp divide between the academic and the vocational course of study. This takes concentrated and long-term work: foregrounding the intellectual content of occupations, getting people from different disciplines to understand each other’s fields, developing curricula that truly blend occupational and academic goals.
  • Creating a new, rich, humane philosophy of education for our time (or re-articulating and incorporating the best educational visions from the past) that acknowledges the economic motive for education, but also infuses the social, ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic motives.

Q. One of my favorite sections is from the introduction: “As we will see, there’s a lot wrong with the institutions that provide people with a second chance, but this college for these three young men [Henry, Jesus, and Jeremy] proved to be a place where they could acquire knowledge and skill, develop a sense of competence as readers and writers and thinkers, channel desire into productive activity, come to terms with inner and outer demons, bridge social divides, take on a new way of being in the world. To be sure, I’m talking about a small percentage of all those on the streets or in the criminal-justice system. And by no means do all who try to return to school stay more than a few weeks or months. But when it happens, it broadens our vision of the possible. As Henry said, ‘You might discover somebody you never knew you were.’” Is this too much to hope for, to want from our institutions?

A. Thank you. I like it, too. I know that the sentiments expressed here are lofty ones, and, sadly, not common. But when you get in close and stay for a while, you see this kind of transformation happen with more than a few people. It is powerful. And as I say, these stories enable you to see what’s possible. But, and this is crucial, it takes a lot of hard work, certainly on the part of the people undergoing the change, but equally (probably more so) on the part of faculty and staff.

This kind of transformation happens because of well-thought-out and well-run programs, because of teachers who do a little extra and mentors who are consistent and persistent, because of a feeling an institution can give that you matter, no matter how much you might have screwed up in the past—all this and more. This is the kind of thing we should strive for, for it reflects our institutions at their best … and our society, as well.

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