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Recent events have highlighted deep divides in our nation. While this broader societal issue extends well beyond the walls of academe, it touches all of us at colleges and universities in many ways, and it should lead us to consider how we can approach our work more effectively.

Within the American higher education system, community colleges and highly selective private universities are a world apart -- the experiences and students of the one often never touching the other and vice versa. The diversity of institutions with distinct missions serving different populations is often celebrated as a great strength of the system, yet, in truth, it has resulted in significant divide and comes at a cost to students.

Dialogue and understanding are crucial to bridge any divide. And that is true for higher education. Recognizing a need to provide students with a broader perspective, support deeper connections and better position students to engage more effectively across society, one of us, as chancellor of a statewide system of community colleges, offered a course for the first time last year (academic year 2016-17) on community colleges at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education titled Community Colleges and the Advancement of Educational and Economic Opportunity in America. The other, a leader in an organization focused on college completion, was a featured guest speaker to the class.

While many institutions find ways to expose students to new experiences beyond their realm, and some have whole programs dedicated to the study of community colleges, teaching this course at Harvard illustrated strongly the potential that comes from connecting both ends of the higher education spectrum.

Understanding Differences

Fourteen students signed up for the module (half-semester) course the first year. Most did so in recognition of the relevancy of community colleges, as a near majority of U.S. college students are in community colleges and about half of all bachelor’s degree graduates have taken at least one community college course. Among the Harvard students drawn to the course, one-third had been a community college student, a couple had worked for a community college and majority of the others had worked at a nonprofit or in K-12 education connected to the sector.

Even with (or for one or two because of) past familiarity, students initially approached the course with skepticism about community colleges’ ability to broadly deliver on advancing education and economic opportunity. Through extended visits to community colleges and in-depth analysis of student outcome data, however, they came to better appreciate the experiences of community college students and the contributions of community colleges.

The students contrasted the diverse academic preparation, age, race, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds at community colleges with Harvard and the other like institutions they attended. They identified the commitment, work and successes of community college faculty and staff members in meeting the many academic and life needs of students. Through guest speakers and course readings, students learned about the challenges of administration and instruction and the different ways community colleges are responding to serving a diverse and high-need population while receiving significantly less support than other sectors within high education.

The Harvard students developed increased perspective in several areas, such as awareness that comparing community college learning, retention and graduation outcomes with that of the higher education institutions they were most familiar with was not a fair (“apples-to-apples”) comparison, yet improvements in those outcomes were urgently needed.

The students showed strong interest in learning how community colleges were working to resolve some of the most important issues in higher education and discussed potential sources for funding and how such additional resources could best be used. From national policy and research leaders, students learned about validated practices to address problems with remediation, student retention and completion and about the best practices in redesigning community colleges to better support student success.

A mid-career Hispanic Harvard student, who graduated from a community college in California, wrote in the first assignment, “My visit to Bunker Hill Community College was not only useful in regards to this assignment, but also a much-needed opportunity to recalibrate my perspective outside of the Harvard bubble.” Other students in the class also experienced similar epiphanies when visiting local community colleges, demonstrating recalibrations of their perspectives and conversing in class with new energy, engagement and creativity about community colleges.

The students in the class also started to provide insights about how to improve community colleges through their newly adopted understanding of the sector, its students and how community college student experiences and education intersected with their own. With that, the learning in the course became two-way, as the students in the class contributed back to our perspectives as a chancellor and a national leader in college completion and to the guests to the class -- including college presidents, other national educational association leaders and a community college researcher.

The students suggested that the breadth of community college programs -- degree and nondegree, terminal, career, technical and transfer -- has led to a lack of identity for those institutions and their students, potentially making community colleges less appealing and more difficult to promote. That lack of identity contrasted sharply with the strong identity of Harvard that had brought many of the students in the class to Cambridge. Students noted that it might also leave community college students feeling stigmatized as not being “real college” students, thus reducing their confidence and ability to succeed.

The students also suggested that more emphasis on liberal arts at the community college level could provide students with greater learning experiences and better prepare them for transfer to bachelors’ programs, including at elite universities, and for the 21st-century economy -- with improved communication, problem solving, teamwork and other soft skills. The students offered that exposure to stronger humanities programming could help community college students, just as it had for them, be better prepared for an increasingly complex and changing world.

What started as only one or two students interested in working at a community college after graduation grew to over one-third of the students by the end of the course. In addition, a Harvard Business School student in the class is now launching a start-up venture that connects community college graduates to well-paying careers, and another student from the class is starting a doctoral program in higher education with a focus on community colleges.

Bridging the Divide

Seeing the students make the journey to deeper understanding of the community college sector was gratifying. It illustrated the benefits of efforts that provide exposure and experience outside one’s normal sphere in order to appreciate and learn from another perspective. It raised the question of what more can be done at both the student and leadership level to encourage greater understanding, collaboration and integration across different sectors within the same system of higher education in our nation.

First, four-year colleges and universities, private and public, can work at the regional level to strategically build more bridges between themselves and their local community colleges and vice versa. They can do that through joint course offerings, events where administrators and faculty members from different sectors come together to discuss issues, opportunities for student leadership and student association groups to host joint events and invite each other to their respective campuses, and programs whereby institutions come together to serve and support their local communities in a variety of ways.

Second, highly selective institutions can encourage more of their graduates to pursue careers at community colleges and other open-access institutions. Consider, for example, Princeton University’s work with Mercer County College in New Jersey.

Third, institutions could do more to promote and expand existing cross-sector efforts. For example, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s own signature summer executive programs enroll many community college leaders. In so doing, they bring such leaders into contact with peers at other institutions. Columbia University’s Teachers College is home to the Community College Research Center, a highly respected and valued resource for applied research for community colleges nationally. And the Aspen Institute has partnered with Stanford University on a community college leadership development program.

What we argue here applies to all higher education institutions that play a central role in educating the leaders and policy makers of their regions and across the nation. If American higher education as a system is more intentional and active about doing this, it will get closer to its potential to expand educational and economic opportunity -- and respond to concerns that colleges and universities are instead furthering inequality.

While the Harvard course and our experience are only one example among many in connecting significantly different types of institutions, it suggests potential benefits of creating more and wider bridges to allow students, faculty and leaders in higher education to expand their understanding and see beyond their sector or experience. As we seek to bridge higher education in this way, perhaps it may pave the way to bridge other divides across society more broadly.

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