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Yesterday I mentioned the moment in the talk to the state directors of community colleges at which I got stuck. Essentially, I’m seeing an increasing tension between place-bound funding systems and geographically mobile students. Some states are responding by kneecapping student mobility with post-graduation residency requirements, which I’ve opposed and still do. My preferred solution involves moving the funding up the food chain, whether to states or to the feds. (In my own state of New Jersey, a significant number of graduates move to New York City or Philadelphia, both of which are out of state, so we’re particularly sensitive to this point.)  

But the discussion itself was much more wide-ranging.  

I saw my task not as orating on truth and beauty -- nobody needs that at nine in the morning --- nor as getting into the weeds. Instead, I decided to focus on issues that often get lost in the daily rush of events, but that have significant impact over time.  Judging by the feedback in the room, some of these topics are ripe for exploration.

ESL - While we have some great scholarship on the effects of remediation and better ways to help underprepared students, we have very little useful information on ESL programs.  ESL isn’t remediation, really -- remediation assumes that the student was previously exposed to the material, which often isn’t true in ESL -- but it often gets treated as if it were.  And the fit between academic ESL programs and existing financial aid rules is awkward at best.  

As a sector, though, we haven’t made intelligent examination of ESL practices a priority.  If we’re going to make significant headway with underrepresented groups, we should.

Men over 25 - Regular readers know I’ve been asking about this one for a while. At most community colleges -- and I’ll admit that technical colleges may be the exception that proves the rule -- the gender ratio among traditional-age students is pretty even.  But among students older than their early twenties, women far outnumber men. I suspect that’s a function of a combination of different incarceration rates and opportunity costs on the student side, and program mix on the college side. (Allied health programs continue to skew female.)  Still, from a standpoint of improving local quality of life, if we could bring more underemployed men into college and then into decent-paying jobs, we could make a significant, positive difference in many communities.  Judging by the responses in the room, this was a new idea. I’d love to see more focused efforts here.

Expand Free Lunch Program to CC’s -- Sara Goldrick-Rab has been arguing for a while that student hunger is a serious issue; just this week, a report using national data confirmed that she’s right.  (They quibble over percentages, but agree that the number of students affected by hunger is in the millions.)  We may not be able to build on the existing free lunch program as is, but we can take the concept as a template.  What would it look like if we took student hunger seriously?  How can we move away from hit-and-miss charity drives and towards sustainable measures to allow students a chance to focus on their studies?

Senior Citizen Outreach - The oldest baby boomers, born in 1946, turn 71 this year.  With the baby boom generation moving into senior citizen territory, that demographic is expanding fast. As a group, seniors have a few salient traits for our purposes. They tend to be locally connected, they’re relatively affluent as a group, and they have high voting rates. They make powerful political allies, if asked.

As a sector, though, our outreach to seniors has largely been on the margins. We haven’t made a point of consciously courting seniors in the community.  That could mean programming, but it could also mean recruiting them as mentors for struggling younger students.  In some courses, local seniors can make wonderful guest speakers or resource people.  To the extent that union contracts allow, they can be extraordinary volunteers in certain roles. We just haven’t made a point of trying.

As the rest of the baby boom generation moves into the retirement years, the consequences of our failure to engage could get worse. Or, we could engage, and draw on a massive and powerful resource.  It’s up to us.

None of these is revolutionary, but each could make a difference, if taken seriously. It’s hard to tend to longer-term issues like these when a campus is busy putting out short-term budgetary fires. Loss of vision is a real cost of austerity. Here’s hoping that we can build on some of these while we still have the option.


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