Historically, community colleges have been—and continue to be—the institutions of choice for students whose access to higher education has, for various reasons, been limited. The question of whether or not these institutions expand access by democratizing higher education or constrain access by diverting students away from higher-prestige institutions is one that is continually and hotly debated. In his new book Gateway to Opportunity: A History of the Community College in the United States
, J. M. Beach critically and comprehensively reexamines this well-worn territory in an effort to connect the origins of community colleges with the institutions that they have become in today’s higher education milieu. Across four chapters, Beach delineates the path from early-twentieth-century junior colleges to contemporary, multifaceted institutions fulfilling various, sometimes contradictory, missions and serving over a third of all students enrolled in postsecondary education. In doing so, Beach elucidates provocative questions that educators, colleges, and policy makers must consider.
As historians have extensively documented, the original mission of junior colleges was to “cool out” the postsecondary ambitions of the increasing numbers of high school graduates in the early twentieth century. Beach—along with other historians—argues that as junior colleges proliferated, their missions expanded to include general, adult, and vocational education, and, because of this more comprehensive and community-based orientation, they adopted the moniker “community colleges.” The author contributes to the existing historical literature with an examination of the extent to which the development of community colleges reinforced existing patterns of racial segregation in education.
In his chapter entitled “Institutional Ambiguity: Continued Struggles of the Contradictory College,” Beach documents that the civil rights era ushered in a new level of scrutiny of community colleges by scholars. Many scholars at that time began to question the role that community colleges played in reproducing social inequality in the United States. Beach contends that community colleges responded to this criticism by adopting an ideology of “neoliberal corporatism” in which community colleges are judged by their efficiency and held accountable for their ability to “produce” learning. However, as Beach points out, the existing evidence on the labor market returns to a sub-baccalaureate degree call into question whether the current vocationalism of community colleges is an efficient means to increase an individual’s economic and social livelihood.
In the third chapter, “Overburdened and Underfunded: The California Community College,” Beach dedicates an inordinately large portion of the book to looking at the development of community colleges in California. Although California has the largest community college system in the United States, the attention that Beach pays to these colleges is arguably warranted both because and in spite of this fact. Beach outlines the origins of the junior college in California and speaks to a systematized growth under California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education. Beach also explores the aforementioned nexus between racial segregation and community college development in California. He concludes this chapter of the book with a critique of the performance- and efficiency-oriented initiatives that have been devised to measure and evaluate community colleges in the state.
Much of Beach’s critique of the corporatism that now pervades higher education relies on the assertion that community colleges are underfunded; this is, in fact, a titular refrain in the chapter on California’s community colleges. Given the amount of state support that they receive per student in comparison to their higher-status four-year counterparts, this assertion seems well founded. However, there are many arguments implicit in this assertion that remain unaddressed in this text. What would ideal or sufficient funding for community colleges look like? From where should funds be diverted in order to better fund community colleges? Given community colleges’ history of reproducing social inequality—a history well documented by Beach himself—and Beach’s assertion that the economic gains of a sub-baccalaureate degree are dubious at best, should society provide greater resources to such institutions?
Ultimately, Beach concludes the book not by answering the above questions but with a call for greater debate among those charged with funding, leading, and setting policy for community colleges. Although some may see the author’s critical historical analysis as a prelude to institutional nihilism, Beach himself believes in the capacity of institutions to change. As is well documented in this book, community colleges as institutions have adapted in the face of changing conditions and damning critiques in the course of their history. This book provides thoughtful background for conversations on how community colleges can again change and, perhaps, become institutions that support rather than undermine increased justice, equality, and humanity in society.
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