Social justice work has held a great appeal for me as long as I could remember. As a young and active member of my local Church community, it was the aspect I was most able to relate to, and what kept me active in my faith community long past the time I started to disagree with other aspects. My commitment to social justice work is what drew me to my alma mater, The Catholic University of America and what ultimately led me to declare myself a social work major early in my first year of college. So it was disheartening to me that while I found my heart was in social justice work, I never was able to find the right fit with any of the functional areas that fell within the profession. This would be one of the primary reasons I turned toward a career in student affairs, as I discovered an area where I could still pursue my interests of advocacy and empowerment on behalf of college students. Five years after I began my professional journey into student affairs, I would find myself in an institution that most closely aligned with my own values – the Community College.
At the core of the identity of the community college is the idea of being “open access”. In simplest terms, this means that anyone who walks through the door can attend. There’s no review of essays or high school involvement; test scores generally only matter in terms of placement, not in enrollment. The community college is the embodiment of the Emma Lazarus poem that sits in the arm of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. A lot of attention has been given recently to how a college degree can lead to employment opportunities, even in the midst of a recession. In some cases, certain Associate’s degrees have greater immediate income potential than some Bachelor’s degrees. A look at the demographic profile of the community college further illuminates its role as an agency of social justice. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Black and Hispanic students” each made up approximately 9% of the enrollment at public senior colleges. These same groups together make up one third of the enrollment of community colleges. Twelve percent of college students report incomes of less than $20,000, with almost half of them at community colleges. The same spread holds true for those making between $20,000 and $40,000 with over half of these students attending community colleges. The average tuition for in-state public senior colleges is at almost $9000/year while that at community colleges is almost 1/3 at a little over $3000/year. Community Colleges create opportunities for those most in need. In many ways, community colleges work to even the playing field. For those students who dream of attending a highly selective senior college, the community college may be the only opportunity they have. For the many others whose academic journey will end with the community college, their completion may mean a better shot at employability and a living wage, and ultimately the chance to provide the economic stability to their families that they might not have had during their own formative years.
My two proudest moments of the academic year are our leadership awards and graduation. At each event, I soak in the pride I see in the faces of individuals who walk across a stage to receive the acknowledgement of hard work and a realization that opportunity exists. Every year I see students who never imagined themselves even attending college, let alone being the president of a club or an inductee of a honor society. The community college left a door open when so many others were locked shut. While tightening budgets leaving fewer available seats and shrinking availability of financial aid have not spared the community college, the open access spirit still remains. The role of the community college goes beyond providing an education; it is about providing a future.
Chris Conzen is the Director of Campus Activities and Student Leadership Development at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, NY. Chris considers himself an “evangelist” for the role the Community College plays in providing access to educational opportunities and economic success for the grossly underserved. Connect with Chris on twitter @clconzen and follow his blog at http://conzen.com.