Historical and Contemporary Fixation upon Access

The traditional mission of the community college flows out of several principles and characteristics of the institution, its local communities, and its students. These principles have included the community nature or orientation of the institution—derived in part from the Truman (or President’s) Commission’s 1947 report, Higher Education for Democracy—which tied the community college to national democratic aspirations, found in terms such as “democracy’s college” and “democracy’s open door.” Other non-elitist characteristics, such as the comprehensive curriculum, student focus, and community orientation, have served, for decades, to provide a foundation for the mission of the institution. From these democratic aspirations, the open-access nature of the community college was and remains the prime identifiable characteristic of community colleges. Indeed, the access principle—open access to further education and training for adults (and those adolescents who aspire to postsecondary education)—is central to all community colleges, and no doubt is implicit in the community college mission and in community college mission statements.

For decades, access has served as a proxy for the mission of the community college, used to suggest a number of conditions: entry to a career or to further education; an opportunity for all classes and categories of people (notwithstanding the segregated condition of these institutions before the 1970s); and lack of barriers, including geographical and financial. Yet, while entry was conceived of and implied as equal for all, exit was not: Large numbers of students did not leave community colleges with the same outcomes as others, whether that was academic achievement or movement on to employment or to further education. By the 2000s, practitioners and policymakers began to understand that the open door of community colleges was a revolving door for many, and that student outcomes had to be more equal. This awareness and subsequent actions modified the mission of the community college to the extent that access was a term that was subordinated, and the primary term became “success.”

Yet, access did not disappear as a significant component of the community college’s principles. Access became more difficult for some in that those with potential for success took precedence in college behaviors. Success covered a large field of meaning, from the completion of a program (however long) and a certificate to the attainment of an associate’s or baccalaureate degree, as well as transfer to another higher education institution. Success did not cover those students who interacted with a community college for an English language course to be able to function in their community or to talk to their children’s school teachers; it did not cover those students who began a course of study but landed a full-time job and left college; and it did not refer to those students who learned a skill, such as arithmetic or writing, but were lifelong special needs students who would not move on to another level. Certainly, success did not refer to the psychosocial development of students who might be undergoing personal trauma or stress and who achieved some sort of peace amongst the faculty and students of a community college. Success was and continues to be a method of accounting: the measurement of student outcomes based upon a predetermined list of acceptable ends, such as credentials and advancement. Success does not even pertain to grades or learning, but rather to a form of material capital, which promises economic returns to individuals and political gains for legislators. In this sense, the community college can be viewed as a pathway for the acquisition of private goods: a credential that can be used for a job or a doorway to a university for a degree which leads to economic prosperity over a lifetime (e.g., the anticipated $1 million-$1.5 million). In this vein, success violates the democratic principles of the community college, and emphasizes winners and losers—those who have succeeded and those who have not.

Capabilities Approach: The Development of Talent

Yet, there are other ways to understand equality of outcomes. One of these is the Capabilities Approach, developed initially by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and furthered in thought by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, among others. In brief, the Capabilities Approach, when applied to institutions such as community colleges, points to the outcomes for students based upon their opportunities and their achievements made possible through opportunities, which include their capacities. Thus, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds with financial stress are not the same as students from more privileged backgrounds: The two have differing capacities, at least when they enter college. The role of the institution, in this case the community college, is to enable individuals to achieve that which they are capable of achieving, or their potential. This view is not dissimilar to one proposed by Alexander Astin in the 1980s: The development of talent is the prime responsibility of a higher education institution.

The Capabilities Approach can be used as a normative framework for the assessment of institutions of higher education—assessments focused upon elements social institutions and policies should aim to equalize. The Capabilities Approach argues that equality and social arrangements should be evaluated based upon essential, or real, opportunities people have to achieve the valued activities and ends that are integral to their well-being. The judgement, then, is on what people are actually able to do in a given context and, hence, the sets of capabilities, or opportunities, available to them, rather than the activities they can enjoy at any given time. In other words, the fundamental question is whether or not individuals have access to the same opportunities, not whether or not they participate at the same levels and with the same essential freedom. This orientation either obliterates the traditional community college concept of access or redefines access. Within the context of higher education, the Capabilities Approach moves the conversation from one focused on participation to one focused on access and opportunity, particularly political and structural access as opportunities.

The New and Improved Mission of the Community College

Such an approach—the development of talent—has been in practice at community colleges for decades, and continues into the present. As I have noted in my books on community colleges, college leaders at various levels—chancellors, presidents, deans—and rank-and-file faculty and staff have viewed the development of individual students as their major responsibility and, indeed, calling. Although individual development is both laudable and necessary, the development of talent, or the focus on opportunity through the development of talent, for groups or classes of students is also necessary. Indeed, the development of talent for groups of students is imperative not only to equalize opportunities in a society, but also to fulfill the promise of democracy. Whether the group or class is based upon gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, language of communication, religious beliefs, immigration status, ability/disability, age, or other identity groupings, the community college can focus its attention on opportunities that groups or classes of people have to achieve the valued activities and ends that are integral to their well-being.

Thus, community college mission can on the one hand articulate what is already practiced—the development of talent of individuals—and on the other hand take up the concept of mission as an ideal or calling for societal groups, particularly the most disadvantaged. Such a mission is an antidote to what Douglas Massey, in Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (2007), expresses as the categorical inequality prevalent in U.S. society.

John S. Levin

Professor of Higher Education, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Riverside


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