In an even-handed recent article, Newsday’s Candice Ferrette documents the challenges Nassau Community College and Suffolk County Community College face to raise graduation rates and enrollment while struggling to meet the needs of a racially diverse, socially complex, and often economically distressed student population—all this at a time when funding long ago plateaued. Ferrette divides her survey of our dilemma into four parts: our lagging graduation rates; our primary mission (workforce education or the liberal arts); who the successful students are; and efforts being made to stimulate enrollment and increase retention.
She points out that graduation rates at both NCC and SCCC, 22% and 21%, are below the national average of 25%. Left out of these tallies, Ferrette notes, are part-timers, transfers, remedial students, and those who come up through programs such as LINCC. She cites the example of Ariful Arif, an SCCC student from Bangladesh, who knew no English when he started high school, took ESL classes at SCCC (while working 60-80 hours per week), and plans to graduate this December with a 4.0. His story is amazing, but his success isn’t figured into graduation stats. In other words, the statistics mask the dizzying complexity of our populations. Ferrette quotes NCC Academic Senate chair, Dr. Evelyn Deuluty: “These students don’t fit the mold of the average middle-class student. First of all, their parents are not giving them a single cent. These students are not falling asleep in class because they were out partying—it’s because they were up working the graveyard shift. We need to readjust the paradigm, because you can’t use the typical benchmarks to judge these students.”
We can make a couple of points here. First, an archaic, poorly conceived metric is used to judge our performance: it is based on full-time, first-time enrolled students (should we call this utopian demography?). Second, it’s terribly ironic that community college “reformers” are urging workforce priorities when lots of our students (like Mr. Arif), out of economic necessity, are already in the workforce, and they are going to college because they cling to the idea of re-imagining themselves and their futures—via what we (now quaintly) call a liberal arts education. And they don’t want dead end jobs like the kinds they already have. What reformers—like SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher—won’t own up to is that regional businesses desperately want to outsource the training they used to do in-house to community colleges. Tax payers pick up the tab of corporate training, while dwelling under the illusion that “workforce education” is just what their children need. This is the genius of the neoliberal higher education con game. Workforce education is just another kind of planned obsolescence—except it’s humans, not machines, who become obsolete.
Ferrette addresses the workforce issue in her article. She cites statistics that point out that 45% of undergraduates in the U.S. attend community colleges; 36% of those are the first in their families to go to college; 17 percent of the students are single parents; 12% have disabilities; 7% are not citizens; and 4% are veterans. Moreover, 66% of the 7.3 million community college students attend part time. Ferrette profiles another student, Jessica Abrams, who after attending NCC right out of high school, dropped out because of substance abuse issues, but returned eight years later as a mature, single parent with a dream of becoming an occupational therapist. With students like Ms. Abrams in mind, Ferrette once again quotes Dr. Deluty, who asks: “[Are] we the ones to decide which students will be channeled into workforce education and which will be inspired to go on for more education?”
Dr. Deluty’s excellent question points precisely at the dubious ethics, the class and racial biases, and the anti-democratic tendencies—of workforce proponents. The real crime here is that the neoliberal imagination (which is the workforce imagination, which is the corporate imagination, and hence the legislative, policy-making imagination) effaces the humanity of the wonderfully interesting students we meet daily in our classrooms. This imagination stifles and silences our students. Our students’ stories, the stories of their struggles and the stories of their dreams, matter less and less to a reformist class that insists their stories aren’t relevant. “We know what’s best for you,” the reformer intones, “and we will write your stories for you.”
As we at NCC work together to recover our reputation and our accreditation, as we join with our wonderful new president Dr. Keen to right this foundering ship, our college, we should also be asking, Why are we here? What kind of democracy are we helping to shape? Are we helping to shape minds that will not only help lead this country creatively but will also question this country’s priorities? Or, are we simply acting out the small and stifling role of training students for bit parts in a national drama where the starring roles go only to the privileged? This is our tough mandate: making sure community colleges—and our community college–return to being bastions of equal opportunity, not engines of economic inequality.
-Dr. Timothy Strode, NCC AAUP Executive Committee