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I’ve known that community college teaching was my calling almost from the moment I knew what a community college was. Working at an open door institution–that is, offering an education to anyone who comes through the door–spoke to something deep in my moral DNA.

But it didn’t take many years of actually working in a community college for me to see how far the reality falls short of the dream: there are many community colleges, including the one where I teach, where students are likelier to default on their student loans than they are to graduate on time. And, as with just about every other institution in the United States, there are serious equity gaps between how easy it is for middle class, traditional age (usually white) students to navigate the system, compared to how many roadblocks exist for first generation and other “non-traditional” students, who are disproportionately people of color.

In the twenty-plus years of my career, I’ve imagined the work of my college as analogous to the function of a large, overburdened public hospital: the community is glad that such places exist, but anyone who knows better takes their kids elsewhere if they can.

Yet the educational ecosystem of the US (indeed, of the entire world) is changing more rapidly, and more profoundly, than at any time in decades and perhaps in centuries. The ultimate driver of these changes is the internet: no information technology since the printing press has had such a seismic effect on people’s access to knowledge. And, if our society approaches the changes mindfully, I believe that this transformation will lift the stock value of America’s community colleges.

I am not speaking here of the wholesale move to online education that began to accelerate twenty-odd years ago and then sped up cataclysmically during the coronavirus pandemic. Years of teaching both online and face to face have convinced me that online learning is a pale substitute for the educational experience that many students are hoping for. But that’s an argument for another essay. For this post, I will say that the internet has done more than simply spur the growth of a million mediocre online courses; far more importantly, the internet has upended some of the fundamental assumptions of what school is for.

Before the internet, the central educational challenge for any society was access to content, whether that knowledge was locked up in books or in the experience of elders, who are limited in the number of people they can teach at one time. It is still the case today that where access to content is scarce, societies have difficulty in delivering even basic literacy to their citizens. Back in the pre-internet age, even where literacy was widespread it was hard out there for an auto-didact. Anyone who wished to know more than the barest rudiments of chemistry or mechanical engineering or ancient history or whatever had to have physical access to an institution of learning: a library, a museum, a university. Advanced knowledge in many fields was locked up in these ivory towers, preserved for the elect who had the social connections, the money, or the talent to access the lectures and the rare manuscripts, the academic journal subscriptions and the Erlenmeyer flasks. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure offers a poignant description of this state of affairs: Jude’s failed attempt to enter “Bibliol College” at Oxford because of his background as a stonemason was thought to have been drawn from Hardy’s real life experience failing to gain entry to Balliol College Oxford.

Balliol College.jpg
The Real-life Balliol College, photo by Steve Cadman. Note the literal tower.

The community college was conceived as a disruptor of this elitist system. It’s hardly the only one: the public library, Wikipedia, and the land grant university system were also developed to increase ordinary people’s access to educational content. But the community college has come to occupy a special niche in the educational ecosystem: unlike land grant universities, the community college is a truly open door institution. Pound for pound, the community college helps to lift far more people out of poverty than universities do, given the formal and informal barriers to entry at most universities. And yet, the community college is also unlike those other great open door institutions like the public library, Khan Academy, and Wikipedia: at a community college, whatever subject you hope to study, there is a knowledgeable guide there to speak with you personally, to offer you personal feedback on your writing, to help you frame your questions and offer suggestions for tracking down the answers. It is the personal relationship between teachers and students–what the parents of elite students pay tens of thousands of dollars for at small liberal arts colleges–that the community college can offer.

Of course, anyone who has actually studied at a community college knows that not everyone who works there is a knowledgeable guide: some community college teachers are lackluster, ineffective, or worse. Outside the classroom, the processes for getting academic advising or help in the financial aid office can be so byzantine that they would be at home in a Franz Kafka novel. And many college administrations mismanage their institutions with such energy that one can be forgiven for wondering whether there are saboteurs among them.

But despite these defects, many of which are the result of America’s decades-long disinvestment in public services, the community college remains one of the only institutions where an adult can walk in, without any prior credentials or letters of recommendation, and receive caring, personalized instruction in nearly any field from an experienced teacher. The community college aims to help those students who are most vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation; those most vulnerable to the predatory sales pitch of the for-profit university; those least likely to be able to afford an internet paywall, or the more consequential paywall of university tuition. The internet may have exploded many people’s assumptions about how education works. But here is one thing the internet hasn’t changed: most students still want to be seen, to be recognized, to be known by other human beings. Students with money can get those attentions at hundreds of prestigious universities. But anyone, rich or poor, young or old, neurotypical or not, can find teachers who see them, recognize them, and know them at a community college.