I'm a strong believer in community colleges. Long before I became the president of LaGuardia Community College in 2000, I graduated from Jamestown Community College. And before I had any idea I'd become a college president, I earned my Ph.D. in Social Psychology, studying people and what shapes them. Community colleges became my area of interest, and eventually my passion. Community colleges are a uniquely American institution; they open the doors of higher education to all, create economic opportunity and strengthen our democracy.
LaGuardia is our nation’s future. The College’s 50,000 students come from over 150 countries and speak 90 languages; many are foreign-born, and many are first generation college students. They juggle classes with work and family, and they strive to earn and sustain a place in the American middle class.
Why community colleges? Because community colleges tackle our nation’s greatest challenges: growing economic disparity, a shrinking middle class and a declining standard of living for low-income Americans. Community colleges open the doors of higher education to all; they create career ladders, so that students gain the skills to find sustainable work while continuing their education. Those who earn a two-year degree increase their lifetime earnings by almost half a million dollars, creating better lives for themselves and their families. When LaGuardia opened its doors in 1971, it was in response to a call for greater equity in our higher education system. Today, community colleges across the U.S. are still answering that call, but they receive startlingly inadequate funding to do so.
I want to flip the conversation. Unfortunately, in higher education our thinking has been framed by antiquated ideas of who attends college. The image of the typical college student is one who goes to school full-time with financial support from her family and the ability to focus solely on her studies. But that ignores today’s reality: the “typical” college student is more similar to a LaGuardia student; almost half of the nation’s undergraduates attend a community college. The conversation about higher education has, for much too long, been driven by this old way of thinking. The time for change is now.
How? We need funding equity for community colleges, which spend five times less per pupil than private research colleges. We need to have a different conversation about a new standard in American education: community college that is as free and universal as high school. We must invest in students to ensure they have the supports—financial and academic—to stay in school. And we must invest in faculty, the lifeblood of our colleges, so that they’re better able to help more students succeed.
This is my vision: to bolster America's community colleges in order to strengthen our economy, build a more learned society, and prepare for our future. I hope you'll join me. Dr. Gail O. Mellow President LaGuardia Community College
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