Community colleges can heal a divided America

Op-ed: Community colleges have unique roles as places of dialogue and healing in a divided America.

The economic polarization in the country, a national debate too often laden with an undercurrent of racism and infused with xenophobia, has muddled an objective assessment of our nation's actual challenges. Americans live in more segregated communities, and attend more segregated schools now than in the past 20 years. Perhaps that is one reason the problems of economic insecurity, lack of opportunity, and racial and ethnic tensions are still with us —a nd have worsened the antagonism sown during the election, further muting our ability to understand each other's reality.

As female presidents of community colleges in distinct parts of the nation, we couldn't be more different: One of us is white and was raised in a rural upstate New York in an area that is now littered with abandoned factories that no longer provide middle class jobs. The other is African American and raised in Chicago, where senseless urban violence has consumed entire generations. In our common roles, though, we both see the unique potential of community colleges as places of dialogue and healing.

Why? Because the people from both of our backgrounds now take advantage of community colleges' open doors. Community colleges have none of the trappings of exclusivity yet all the academic prowess required to engage in the thoughtful consensus- building necessary to knit back together a divided America. Affordable and accessible, community colleges serve some of the most vulnerable players in the national narrative about inequality: former members of the middle class, largely white and high school educated, whose standard of living has declined precipitously over the last decades; people of color who have struggled for years to move into the middle class; and immigrants (undocumented and documented) whose presence in our public schools and significant contributions to the U.S. economy are undeniable. Community colleges also welcome veterans, working closely with local businesses and actively linking to high schools to promote our special support for our service members.

Poverty and a lack of economic opportunity and mobility are the common enemy here, a reality sadly obscured in partisan politics. The narrative has been hijacked so that people in different groups see their neighbors as the problem rather than the larger economic and political forces — technological change, globalization of trade, money in politics — that are reshaping America. What's lost are the possible solutions to these very real problems, including how higher education can and must play a central role in our national healing, recovery and growth.

No wonder there is despair about the future of the nation: What was once called the American Dream is no longer a reality. The replacement of manufacturing jobs in the country by low-wage service jobs on one end and high-tech, high-training smart jobs on the other, has further polarized opportunity for workers along the lines of wealth: Those who can afford to "up-skill" are implicitly protected from entrenchment in the dead-end service economy; others are left behind. What remains undeniable is that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient to ensure a bright future.

Almost without notice community colleges have become the one place where diverse groups meet in search of a common end: opportunity. There are 1,100 community colleges in the U.S., serving almost half the undergraduates in the nation. Sixty-two percent of community college students work while going to college, despite financial aid from federal and state governments. These are students who are living the realities of low-wage service jobs in urban sectors, shuttered production plants in the Midwest and collapsing family farms in the south. In the classrooms of our colleges, discussions of inequality, racism and immigration don't need the "trigger warnings" so hotly debated in some universities; our students live them every day.

Now is the time to ask community colleges to advance the American ideal of e pluribus unum —from many, one. We must lead the movement to understand the "other" in all of our communities, to renounce efforts to vilify one another for narrow political advantage. As college presidents, we call on our national leaders to work to preserve the opportunity for Americans to learn and train without exorbitant debt, to build careers and work productively with dignity. We welcome the opportunity, finally, to close the yawning chasm of inequality that has stunted the potential of millions of Americans and led them to achieve considerably less than their true promise.

Gail Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York; Twitter: @GailOMellow. DeRionne Pollard is the president of Montgomery College in Maryland; Twitter: @DrPollard_MC.

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