Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: A Lesson Learned at the Community College

Last January 8, 2015, President Barack Obama announced his plan for making two years of community college free “for anyone who’s willing to work for it.” The White House insists that the president’s “proposal could save a full-time community college student an average of $3,800 in tuition per year and benefit about 9 million students per year if they earn good grades and stay on track to graduate.”[1]

The president’s plan, called America’s College Promise, would cover students’ tuition for qualifying community college programs, so long as students maintain a 2.5 GPA. Unlike similar state projects, ACP would cover non-traditional (older students not just fresh-out-of high school ones) and part-time students (who represent 60% of community colleges’ students nationwide). The ACP would also cover certificate-granting programs.[2]

non traditional students

Some are labeling this program a “new G.I. Bill” and the “best news for the middle class in a long time”.[3] That is no small praise. The 1944 G.I. Bill is credited with greatly expanding the middle class in the U.S. mostly because it granted access to college education to millions of WWII (and later on Korean War) veterans whose socio-economic and racial background basically meant that a college education was out of their reach.[4] I agree with the comparison to the G.I. Bill, but let us be clear. This is good news for the middle class (and the country as a whole) because it gives a chance to the working class and the poor to get skills, training, certificates and degrees needed so they can join an expanding middle class.


Opposition against Obama’s proposal mounted immediately. We have a plethora of unsustainable claims such as the program being unaffordable, or that most jobs don’t require a degree or certificate. We also have the ultra-partisan line claiming that “Obama’s latest scheme to ‘spread the wealth around’ comes in the form of promising free community college on one hand while double-taxing students who were responsible enough to plan ahead on the other.” You know, the old “Makers versus Takers” argument disguised as responsible versus irresponsible.

So let me ask you something. Is a full-time working class woman, who very likely is the head of her family, being irresponsible for making the time and effort to improve her education and bettering her and her family’s choices? If anything, she, and the millions of men and women in her position, should be commended for keeping alive and redefining the American Dream.

hostos CC

Yet others have opposed comparisons to the G.I. Bill. These critics fail to recognize that those labeling ACP “a new G.I. Bill” are not denigrating our service members but gauging the impact of the proposed program. I mean no disrespect to our service men and women. I served for over a decade myself and the G.I. Bill and the Army Reserve pay put me through college. But a society in which joining the military is the only chance for millions of people to get an education is a society badly in need of a major restructuring.

Finally, we have the tautological argument that community colleges are a poor investment because of very low completion rates and the unpreparedness of the majority of their students for college. The facts are true but the argument is simply wrong. The New York times reported that at the national level “about 60 percent of students entering community colleges need remedial courses, and only about 15 percent of them earn an associate’s degree or certificate within three years.” It is precisely because of those dismal numbers that we need to invest in community colleges.

There are good and bad community colleges, just like there are good and bad 4-year colleges (both public and private). The president made reference the City University of New York’s community colleges as an example of a system that works and continues to improve. Recently featured in the NY Times, “CUNY’s program — called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP — provides intensive advising, tutoring, tuition waivers and money for books and transportation.” The program is “now in use at six of the seven two-year colleges in the CUNY system”.[5] This is a good program that works and should be emulated- and improved.


Jonathan Alter proposed another area that could use much improvement and which is responsible for the low completion rates. “The biggest problem with the Obama plan is that it doesn’t call for blowing up the existing guidance/advisory system, which is a scandal. Many community colleges have a ratio of one guidance counselor for every 1,500 to 2,000 students (or more), a recipe for failure. By the time the college learns that a student is struggling, he or she has long since dropped out. Sensible regulation should insist on much smaller advisor-student ratios, which would likely mean requiring faculty members, administrators, coaches and other employees to each take a certain number of advisees. That’s the practice in private colleges and a good early warning system for students at risk of dropping out.”

And this is the truth of the matter. We have academically under-prepared students who may also lack the cultural capital to navigate college hoping to find their way in usually underfunded and undermanned community colleges. The low completion rates should not be surprising when considering these circumstances.

To make matters worse, those who manage to earn a certificate in a community college have to deal with the stigma of having a “sub-par” “remedial” education. I have to admit that not a while ago I had the same opinion about community colleges.

In the spring semester of 2004 I taught History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean at Holyoke Community College (HCC) in Massachusetts. I didn’t teach this class because I loved doing it mind you. The pay wasn’t much ($2,000); and to be honest, we know that for all the talk, many involved in job searches tend to look at this type of jobs as “oh, OK, next”. So, I was teaching that class only to make ends meet just like many other graduate students do.

I guess that I had also become a bit arrogant after getting my M.A. at Temple University and entering a Ph.D. program in history at UMass, Amherst. I also had 3 years of teaching experience at Rutgers University and I thought I was the best and coolest professor ever- we all go through that I guess. Hence, I thought that I was way over “that” and by “that” I mean teaching at a community college. That is quite hypocritical if you take into consideration that I’m a high school drop-out with a “Good Enough Degree” -like Chris Rock once called it.

There I was; hating all the remedial teaching involved in teaching at a CC, hating being a cheer leader for students who didn’t care one way or another. And, all of that before I actually met any of my students or even stepped into the classroom. I was biased to say the least, predisposed to hate my time at the HCC. Worse yet, I had given up on my students before I even met them; I had failed them before they even had a chance to prove themselves.

Accordingly, I started the first day reading the students the riot act and, performing my “tough guy-I’m from el barrio too so don’t mess with me” routine. All that without cursing and using my most detached attitude and elevated language of course. There I was thinking: “I’m way above this, let me show them I’m not their ‘bro’ ‘mano’ ‘pana’ or whatever other “friendly” slang they dare use to approach me. How the hell did I end up back in this hell-hole?”

Yeah, that was my attitude. I’m not excusing my horrible attitude, but this need to be said. Women and professors of color often have to deal with students who don’t pay them the same respect and professional courtesy they immediately grant to White male professors, regardless of the professor’s education, experience, appearance, or demeanor. Go ahead, ask around. There is even good reads on the topic.[6] But like I said, that is no excuse for my attitude.

I only had 14 students in that class. That is a good manageable number. The group was mixed indeed. I had a white bright feminist but very shy young woman; a Puerto Rican woman in her mid-twenties who had goals and wanted to go places, a Venezuelan young man who barely spoke English and needed to be enrolled in HCC so he could pursue his dream of one day playing professional baseball; a Dominican in the same position as the Venezuelan who once asked me why didn’t the U.S. also take over the Dominican Republic and gave them U.S. citizenship so his life could be easier (and left me speechless and with a knot in my throat); a White young man whose biggest fear in life was to end up in jail and being raped; and, a Puerto Rican young man in his mid-twenties- who was always late for class and fell asleep half way through class. Those were my most memorable students. queenboroughCUNY-Borough-of-Manhattan-Community-College-sch-ethnicity-id818.png

CUNY, Borough of Manhattan Community College by Ethnicity/Race

At first, as I mentioned above, I didn’t think much of them. But after the initial speech I got to know my students. I had the habit of warming them up for class by discussing current events, the news, and asking what they thought of them- that is how I got to know them. And I started to like them very much by the second week. Yeah, I’m a big softy after all- who knew.

But I didn’t warm up to the young Puerto Rican who always fell asleep in class. He irritated me. I was convinced he had no interest in my class and at a certain point I wanted him to drop my class so I could have a more or less perfect session. Mind you, he wasn’t being disruptive- it just hurt my ego that he would fall asleep while I taught my class.

Since he was always very late, fell asleep in class, and his face always had white dust all over it, I thought that he had spent the night hanging out and when he realized he was late for class he snorted some cocaine to stay awake for a few more hours. Did I mention I have a very suspicious mind? Now you know.

One day I asked him to stay after class. He said he couldn’t. I said “you have to.” So he stayed. And after some 30-seconds of fake-courtesy chat I asked him “What is that powder in your face and why are your eyes so red?” He blushed, looked down, completely embarrassed. I thought “I got him!” Then he said “I work at Burger King from 2 to 7 in the morning, I clean up and then help out in the kitchen.” It was my turn to  be completely embarrassed. I finally told him. “Ok, but why did you take this class at 7:30? You barely have any time to make it here and can’t even stay awake.” He answered that he didn’t know any history of Puerto Rico and he wanted to learn his history. He was a part-time, working class student, staying awake after the graveyard shift to take my class- what a lesson.

I proposed to him to catch up via-email. He could email me any questions or concerns as well as all the work he owed me. He said he didn’t have an email account. I thought it odd because HCC gives email accounts to all his students, staff and faculty. But that was his reality, he didn’t have an email account or knew how to use a computer. He just had his college I.D. and had never visited the library or knew how to access the library’s website. I offered to go with him to the library and help him set his account but he had to go. He had to rush back home so his sister could go to work while he watched over her son. And that is the reality for many community college students.

He wasn’t the only one. In the next class meeting I asked the whole class how many of them used their email accounts or had visited the library’s website. Just two students had done so. So, instead of teaching about settlement patterns in the Caribbean we went to the library and asked for an orientation. The librarian was more than happy to do it. During the next meeting we went to get their email accounts activated- the majority of the students did not have access to a computer or internet access at home.

We went back to the planned syllabus by week 5- though the remedial teaching lasted until the very last meeting, but I was glad to do it. The class dynamics completely changed. The class became FUN for them and for me too. And they improved quite a lot in a short period of time. They taught me to be more open and accepting. They never questioned that I belonged there but, initially, I did question them. Learning in that class happened in a two-way street, and I believe that I’m a better teacher because of my time at HCC.

My students needed a lot of support, from remedial English to twenty-first century basic skills. And, judging by statistics and the anecdotes shared by many of my colleagues and friends, this seems to be the norm everywhere. There is another side to that “norm” though. Those who enroll in community colleges, unprepared as they may be education-wise, lacking both the cultural capital to understand and navigate the system, and the socio-economic standing that would allow them to solely focus on studying, are very resilient people trying to build a better future. They deserve a better chance at building that future. President Obama’s proposal may not be perfect but it is a good start.


[1] [2] [3] [4] The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was finally signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 22, 1944. By 1947, “veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program.” Furthermore, between 1944 and 1952, the VA “backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans.” Even more compelling, few veterans “collected on one of the bill’s most controversial provisions—the unemployment pay. Less than 20 percent of funds set aside for this was used.” [5] [6]


  1. Harry, compa great piece! As a fellow phd Boricua (aunque sin terminar) with a GED (good enough diploma i call it) from a community college I can relate. I have been teaching in community colleges since Amherst on purpose and because as a single father I have to work to pay nyc rent! Thus no termino. Don’t know if I will either. Saludos.

    Liked by 1 person

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