I am a community college Professor of Communication Studies at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA. I am currently in my thirteenth year as a tenured professor, though had decades of experience as an adjunct professor in various public and private colleges as well as universities in the Southern California area.

Having no one in my blue-collar family of origin attend college, nor even believe in the value of higher education, you can only imagine how deeply grateful and indebted I feel toward the California Community College system. It was within this system, Los Angeles Valley College specifically, that I found my voice as a student, was taught to critically think, while being offered both wonderful academic and life guidance from very caring faculty members. My experience in this regard is not unique.

It is not at all uncommon for a student who transferred to a prestigious university to return only to observe the excellence of their classroom instruction at Crafton Hills. Of course this is a very generalized observation usually driven by one of several possible university experiences: classes with lecture halls of hundreds of students that lack personal attention from the professor; classes taught by a professor who may only teach to justify her first love of research; and/or classes taught by inexperienced graduate assistants or insufficiently-trained instructors.

One of the primary reasons I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of the community college education, is the opportunity to focus primarily on the classroom and student interaction versus the mandate of research and publications. Though we certainly have our fair share of out of the classroom duties to which we must attend, such as committee work and shared governance, our primary focus is the students and the students alone.

The California Community College system is the largest in the country and routinely accounts for nearly fifty percent of all college students in the state. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “Compared to other states, California relies more heavily on community colleges and less on four-year institutions—the state ranks fifth nationwide in the share of recent high school graduates who enroll in community colleges and 47th in the share who start at four-year schools.”

As of 2018, there were 980 public community colleges in the United States. Nearly half of all students in the U.S. attend a community college. Hence, we would be remiss to overlook our country’s community college system in the quest to promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in our institutions of higher learning.

Primacy Effect

Psychology, and now neuroscience, informs us that early initial encounters with others lead us to form an initial expectancy about the people we meet.  Once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact.  For better or worse, once we have developed a schema, it becomes very difficult to change it.

To analogize, the community college has the advantage of the educational primacy effect in many college students’ lives. For most students, it is the beginning phase of learning how to think critically. Each year the state of California transfers over one hundred thousand students to four-year colleges and universities throughout the country. These students have already formed their collegial identity; they have cut their teeth on issues related to freedom of expression and open inquiry, and have been exposed to both destructive (unfortunately) and constructive disagreement. This initial exposure to higher education has a tremendous impact on students and the future trajectory of their education and career choices.

At Crafton Hills, many of the students in our communication studies program have been trained to publicly advocate for various issues, engage in academic debate, and have learned the value of civil discourse. These students are going to have a large voice in their future respective universities and will have great influence in achieving HxA objectives (see, for instance, the Linn Benton Community College Civil Discourse Club, which won Heterodox Academy’s 2019 ‘Outstanding Student Group’ award). I am routinely impressed by observing the amount of growth, maturity and academic prowess many students achieve in their short time within our system. Students who are now fundamentally ready to make a difference, not only in four-year colleges and university systems, but also through their overall duty as citizens.

As for those students who may never transfer for any variety of reasons, many of these students would have never been exposed to critical thought and analysis in any type of formal sense were it not for this system.

Diverse Student Populations

Community colleges are home to extremely diverse student populations, including those from such as the historically disenfranchised or marginalized groups, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or underserved geographical regions, and military veterans – who bring with them unique insights, experiences, ways of looking at the world and being in the world which are largely absent from other institutions of higher learning.

Anthony Jack, assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing The Disadvantaged Students, suggests elite schools “have been teaching students from more privileged backgrounds for so long, that we take a lot for granted on a college campus. Mental health offices, career service offices, they are so used to students being more proactive and entering their doors because they’ve been taught that if you want something, you go out and get it. The fact that you have to go seek things out, that’s an unspoken rule on a college campus that disproportionately hurts low-income students from disadvantaged high schools. There is a bias towards privilege on a college campus that permeates so many things that we do.”

As recently reported in the New York Times, Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent (with income of $630k per year or higher) are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30k per year. In fact, 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1% than students who come from the bottom 60% (i.e. families who bring in less than $65k per year).

It is these well-off children — who have been overmanaged, overprotected and otherwise ‘coddled’  — who overreact so wildly when confronted by people, ideas or situations they find undesirable. Most of the major campus blowups have happened at highly-selective schools which disproportionately serve these children. While these privileged students are reaching for social status and self-actualization, our students are figuring out how to meet their lower level needs and surmise where they are going to fit within the larger social structure.

At our campus, we have a program for our homeless student population—probably not a group largely represented at the elite academies. The majority of students who go off to elite schools, or even four-year colleges, typically have a built-in support network on which to rely. At Crafton Hills, many of our students will not eat if they do not work — which is why we have a food bank on campus for our hungry students. That is, our version of a “safe space” is for those who struggle with food insecurities rather than microaggressions.

A significant portion of our student population is academically prepared and qualified for the university, yet has either not qualified for financial aid or has lacked the necessary guidance to lead one through the bureaucratic maze of administrative paperwork to do so. For each class I teach, I typically have students who have been accepted into the UC or other four-year systems but could not manage to secure enough funding to attend. In addition, though administrative policy does not allow us to know this number specifically, with our campus slightly over fifty percent Latino in Southern California, we surmise a significant undocumented student population as well.

On the flip side, we also have a student population with some affluence. Many of these students, who elect to stay in the area, attend the University of Redlands with dual enrollment at Crafton Hills. Insofar as age, our primary student population is between the ages of eighteen and twenty four, yet it is not at all unusual for classes to have students of all ages with many different generations, political orientations and life experiences all represented. With this amount of campus diversity, it is not at all difficult to encounter contrarian points of view on any number of issues.

Classroom Focus and Reaching the Traditionally Non-Academic

Let me be clear, we are all hugely indebted to the wonderful and insightful research and subsequent publications generated by our elite universities. Simply, I could not do my job without the contributions of elite scholarship. I would consider most of my courses rife with “elite” curriculum; that is consisting of research produced by elite academies. In my area of communication studies, in particular critical thinking, Harvard’s Steven Pinker as well as Duke’s Dan Ariely have profoundly shaped my curriculum. Elite universities benefit the entire higher educational system.

Yet they also include an extremely narrow slice of the U.S. population – and value a narrow range of credentials and capabilities. For instance, someone with a high degree of kinesthetic or interpersonal intelligence would likely not be highly desired at elite schools absent high standardized test scores in qualitative or quantitative reasoning as well – or else generous donations from their family to the university.

There are those who go as far as to address the disadvantages of an “elite” education. The American Scholar recently republished an article from Alumnus of Yale and Columbia, William Deresiewicz, in which he observed of elite students, “Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.”

As for those who may end up at an institution like a community college? Deresiewicz continues:

“They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.”

Perhaps unlike Deresiewicz, I believe we need “world-class hoop jumpers” within the diverse mosaic of higher education. As well, we need the voices of the historically oppressed and disadvantaged. Community colleges provide pathways  that can help bridge America’s political, socioeconomic and cultural divides. Hence, they should be a major focus for anyone hoping to promote viewpoint diversity, open inquiry and constructive disagreement in higher ed.