What Exactly Are Today’s Community Colleges and Who Are They For?

by Lorenzo DuBois Baber, Associate Professor at Iowa State University / Apr 25, 2019

In recent years, the traditional stigmas associated with community colleges have faded, giving way to an appreciation of local institutions as accessible, affordable gateways to postsecondary education. 

But with increased approval comes renewed debates about the purpose of community colleges—namely, whether these campuses principally serve democratic ideals through open access and flexible curriculum or capitalist frames via industry partnerships and specialized skill development.

In our chapter in the 2019 volume of Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, my co-authors and I argue that contemporary policy support for community colleges, across the political spectrum, has pushed these institutions to embrace neoliberal influences through an emphasis on organizational rationality and economic, market-based outcomes. To be clear, we are not dismissing the notion that effective institutional structures and support for the individual pursuit of material well-being are a part of postsecondary education. Rather, we claim that the bipartisan dogma of neoliberalism has subverted fundamental principles of equity and justice to, at best, secondary considerations.

As a result, institutions with the most diverse demographic student bodies in U.S. postsecondary education tend to emphasize workforce training over tools for engaged citizenship, corporate demands over community needs, and short-term outcomes over long-term development. Our chapter does not ask community college leaders to completely detach from the matrix of neoliberal discourse, as such actions would require deep thought and the long-term dismantling of sociocultural superstructures in the U.S. However, we do invite practitioners, scholars, and administrators to take a metaphorical red pill and reimagine institutional practices that center contemporary frames of equity and justice to advance the holistic development of underserved students and their communities.

We feel our call to such action is not unique, as we stand on the broad shoulders of community college scholars such as the late Robert Rhoades and Barbara Townsend. However, we think it is critically important to provide contemporary guidance to the longstanding question: What Exactly Are Today’s Community Colleges and Who Are They For?


Baber, L.D., Zamani-Gallaher, E.M., Stevenson, T.M., and Porter, J. (2019). In M.B. Paulsen and L.W. Perna (Eds). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Volume 34 (p. 203-240). Switzerland: Springer