• Bryan Reece, Ph.D.

Community Colleges: A Good Kind of Subversion

An Ongoing Essay Series on Educational Inequities and How to Solve Them

DURING MY EARLY YEARS as a Political Science instructor, I spent a lot of time developing lectures, trying to design a classroom experience that was dynamic, and engaging. Ten-plus years into my teaching career, though, I felt I still was not getting the results I wanted in terms of student performance. One summer, I devoted a great deal of time going back through my lectures, tightening up the content and reworking the corresponding slides for my Introduction to American Government course. I rolled into the following fall semester confident about the new material and particularly eager to see the midterm results. I remember being eager to grade the exams, but as I moved through them, I felt the hope slip away with each score—D, F, D, C, C-, D, C+ . . . It was one of my more discouraging moments as a faculty member.

How can we dramatically move the needle on student success?

On the day I was to return their exams, I walked up the three flights of stairs to the classroom and could feel my frustration rising. I kept thinking about all the time I had pulled from my wife and daughters to prepare the new materials and how it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the scores were worse. By the time I made it to class and was handing out the exams, I was angry and lost my temper. I dismissed class abruptly and cooled off over the next 48 hours. During the next class session, I apologized to my students, and we agreed to a reboot for the semester. But that moment was a bit of a turning point for me. I felt like my aspirations for student success were eluding me and I could feel myself starting down a path I had seen several colleagues take—a path of focusing on the few students who were ready to learn and providing less attention to the students who were not fully committed to learning. 

A few months later, I found myself at a training session put on by the California State Academic Senate. It was a three-day session for new faculty senate leaders or individuals considering a leadership position. I had agreed to attend the meeting, but I was not there with the best frame of mind. Several colleagues had been pressuring/encouraging me to run for academic senate president and I had repeatedly indicated I was not interested. The position seemed very political to me and, as a long-serving senator, I had not seen or experienced a president who had a strong academic focus or any kind of real impact on student learning. But my colleagues’ persistence eventually wore me down, and I agreed to attend the training session.

I started the session expecting to confirm my existing attitudes about the senate, but toward the end of our first day, a speaker laid out the powers of the senate and proceeded to discuss how those powers could be used to enhance the success of our students and elevate the overall teaching and learning environment at our institutions. The presentation had a tremendous impact on me, so much so that I needed to find a quiet place to sit and think about what she had suggested. I was truly shocked. I did not expect to discover the idea that teaching could be enhanced through a collaborative effort and that the academic senate president could help organize this approach. I felt like this suggestion was a solution to many of the problems I had been struggling with in the classroom, so a few months later, I ran for senate president and won under a platform titled Agenda for Student Success. Sitting on that bench by myself at the State Academic Senate training session was the start of a long process.


 A STRAIGHT LINE CAN BE DRAWN from that moment to this essay, which is excerpted from my forthcoming book. It’s a line that traces two decades through a range of programs, positions and initiatives organized around the singular idea of doing collaborative work to strengthen the teaching and learning process in an effort to effect greater student success.

Collaborative solutions in higher education are very effective. They can have positive impacts on student learning. I found this to be the case in every position I have held since academic senate president. However, while I have seen programs and projects generate success for students through collaborative approaches, I have yet to experience a college-wide surge of success through this approach. Like many state legislators, governing board members, education researchers, and higher education leaders, I am frustrated with the state of community college completion rates. While we have seen pockets of remarkable success in assorted programs, success rates for community college students in general and success rates for community colleges students from disfavored communities in particular are disturbingly and unacceptably low.

Incremental change is good, but it isn’t enough.

 The National Center for Education Statistics finds that 13 percent of community college students finish their “2-year degrees” within two years, 22 percent within three years, and 28 percent within four years (Chen, 2020). When community college students are tracked all the way through completion of their “4-year degrees,” 16.7 percent complete within six years, with Asian students completing at 26.4 percent, white students at 21.6 percent, Latinx students at 13.8 percent, and black students at 9.9 percent (Community College Research Center, 2020). I have listened to education leaders point to this concern for three decades and have watched the results remain relatively flat the entire time while the barriers that hinder success remain.

To significantly move the needle on college completion rates for students from historically underserved communities, we need to push past the approach of incremental reform that characterizes so much of higher education. Incremental change leads to incremental improvement, but our students need substantive leaps forward in success rates if we hope to address the enduring equity gaps that persist in American society.

For example, we do not need to spend energy and time in efforts that move African American success rates from a 9.9 percent BA/BS completion rate to a 12 or 13 percent rate. The voices calling for social justice in society today, are asking institutions across America to “reach equity”, not “reach for equity.” They (we) are rightfully impatient with incremental, dispassionate reform, and pointing to the small and modest changes that come from incremental reform is synonymous with asking people to wait for equity.

To “reach equity” in higher education, we need community colleges in particular to move all disproportionately impacted groups to the 60 percent or higher completion rates that students from upper-income families enjoy, and to achieve improvements of this magnitude, we need big, disruptive solutions. We need an agenda for change with sufficient scope; we need to implement this work together; and we need team members from all constituent groups at our colleges to be engaged in this work.

In the U.S., we have long-standing social and cultural structures that perpetuate inequality along race, ethnicity and income lines. The central role of American community colleges is to disrupt these structures on behalf of the students and communities we serve. In this sense, community colleges are called to play a subversive role in contemporary society, but it is a good kind of subversion. It is the kind of subversion that the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called making “good trouble.”

In this ongoing series, I will talk about what “good trouble” means for community colleges, based on the research I am conducting for my forthcoming book with Routledge Press. 

I hope you’ll follow this series and take time to consider what I’m presenting. Reading is not enough, though: Let’s join in a conversation about it, either here in the comments section or somewhere else.