Can Community Colleges Be a Force for a Future Transformed?

September, 2020

Krista Hiser, Ph.D., NCSE Senior Fellow for Community Colleges

A discussion with community college leaders: Maria Boccalandro, Dallas College (formerly the Dallas County Community College District); Bob Franco, Kapi’olani Community College; Robert Rak, Bristol Community College; Stephen Summers, Seminole State College; and Nancy Lee Wood, Bristol Community College.

Recently, a group of NCSE community college leaders met informally, over Zoom, to reconnect and commiserate at the beginning of a difficult semester. The question came up, “how is all of this—the pandemic, the fires, systemic racism—an educational failure?” And what role can education play—specifically community colleges—in this transformation toward a more sustainable future?

Today, 5.5 million students, about half of all undergraduates in the country, attend a community college. We don’t know yet whether community college enrollments will go down as the result of the pandemic and concurrent economic downturn or go up, as they did in the 2008–2009 recession. But with 40 million people currently unemployed due to COVID-19, the question is paramount: Will community colleges be able to provide an education that is relevant?

Community colleges in the U.S. began at the beginning of 20th century as academically-oriented junior colleges and then expanded after World War II and again after the Vietnam War and during the Civil Rights Era to pivot the lives of returning soldiers who needed jobs and retraining as well as to provide reintegration and healing. Could community colleges again provide a pivot point at this critical time we face?

What if community colleges became the place where you go to learn how to live a different life—not just re-skilling but re-learning how to find meaning, to be connected with nature and other people, to participate in regenerating both ecology and society, from soil, forests, and agriculture to housing, systemic racism, and to become a force for healing the continuous traumatic stress that is now endemic in our society?

 Community College leaders presenting "Sink, Burn, Blown Away, Dislocated" at the ACCJC meeting in San Francisco
 NCSE community college leaders at the NCSE 2019 Annual Conference. (Back row, from left: Jay Antle, Stephen Summers, Robert Rak, Maria Boccalandro and student. Front row, from left: Krista Hiser, Bob Franco.)


NCSE community college leaders believe that community colleges can become this force of regeneration and healing but first, we need to be honest about where our educational model has fallen short:

Dr. Maria Boccalandro (Texas), the incoming representative of community colleges to the NCSE Leaders’ Alliance Executive Committee, spoke in her native Spanish and called the situation a failure of the development of moral y civica, which she defined as “learning how to be a citizen of this planet, how to be part of a system instead of being so individualistic.”

Dr. Bob Franco (Hawaii), the immediate past chair of the NCSE Community College Network Leaders’ Alliance Executive Committee, offered education leader Thomas Ehrlich’s (2000) definition of moral and civic responsibility, to which we added (in bold) a missing ecological imperative:

A morally, civically, and ecologically responsible individual recognizes themself as a member of a larger planetary fabric and therefore considers personal, social and ecological problems to be connected; such a person is able and willing to see the moral, civic, and ecological dimensions of issues, to make informed judgments, and to take action when appropriate.

Dr. Stephen Summers (Florida), former chair of the NCSE Community College Network Leaders’ Alliance Executive Committee, brought in the failure to teach people how to sift information accurately. “We wanted everyone to feel like their opinion matters, but we failed to help students know fact from opinion, and which information you really need to listen to. That’s an educational failure.”

But the bottom line, according to Professor Nancy Lee Wood of Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, is that “we are not going to get through the climate crisis unless we as a species re-enter the space of nature.” Technological fixes will not be sufficient. The problem, according to Nancy Lee, is that “we do not think of ourselves as being part of nature, but rather, view ourselves outside of nature—as if nature were just something useful to exploit or enjoy.”

Nancy Lee Wood (center) and students
Nancy Lee Wood (center) and students.


Our controlling, disruptive behavior is resulting in wildfires, mega-storms, sea level rise, intense heat waves, droughts, biodiversity loss, fresh water declines, and yes, pandemics. These are feedback loops which threaten our continued existence. By removing ourselves so thoroughly from nature, we have removed ourselves from each other. To draw down CO2, we must restore Earth’s ecology: forests, prairies, grasslands, wetlands, and mangroves.

 “The fact that we have cut down more than half our tree canopy, paved over precious soil to build urban infrastructure and transport systems, and vastly overshot Earth’s carrying capacity are all indicators that we have failed to understand that our well-being is dependent on Earth’s well-being. Ultimately, societal stability is dependent on ecological stability." said Nancy Lee.

By failing to educate with this understanding, we’ve failed to develop economies that cooperate with the foundations of nature. By extension, Nancy Lee asserts, our educational programs and disciplines have mirrored that failure as we prepare generations of students for ‘a way of life that has no future’ (paraphrasing author and social critic James Howard Kunstler).


Community Colleges Can Help Turn the Tide

Community colleges must pivot educational programs and experiences to become compatible with how nature operates. Because of their agility, local roots, and emphasis on place-based and practical training, community colleges are ideally positioned to fill this critical void. Educating all students about the Earth—how the planet functions and the things we must do to protect it—must become the core element in preparing them for work, family, community, and civic life.

Professor Robert Rak noted that, “We tried to put the sustainability stuff into the curriculum, and it was always, well, if we put that in we have to take something else out. But an educated person is a person who understands the world around them, so they have an understanding of how things work and how things are interrelated. That’s actually the foundation of everything, not just an add on.”

Dr. Franco added, “We have gotten so honed in to “workforce”, and how to prepare students for the ‘21st century workforce’. How long have we heard that thing! We’re in the 3rd decade and we are still talking about that.” What about preparing students to live on this planet?

“Forget about attending the big universities, enjoying sororities, fraternities, football, and the campus experience,” said Dr. Boccalandro, “That’s all changed. For me, these 40 million unemployed are our problem.” 


What Would This Look Like?

In Community Colleges for Democracy, 2020, education advocate Verdis Robinson speaks to the central social justice and equity mission of the American community college:

“The policies and practices that create the economic and racial inequality facing so many community college students will not be changed by helping some of them make it into the middle class. Those policies and practices will change when people who are affected by them can mobilize the political and financial power necessary for re-shaping the public agenda.”

One must add “environmental inequities” to this necessary public policy re-shaping. Our reckless endangering of nature and the climate crisis threaten us all, across social class and political borders. Brian Murphy, in the Afterword to the Community Colleges for Democracy volume, asks:

“Do we adequately prepare students for the deep and wrenching policy and political choices they will face over the next fifteen years of their adulthood? … What can colleges learn from their civic and community engagement programs to develop a college-wide commitment to climate science and an understanding of the full dimensions of the climate disaster? What stops us? Why isn't preparation for climate disaster part of our civic mission?” (Italics added.)

In the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln asserted that “a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” As the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us, without urgent and informed public policy, hundreds of thousands will perish and lower income communities of color will be disproportionately impacted. Our reckless relationship with nature and the climate crisis will result in millions more perishing from the earth in a suicidal collapse.

Community colleges must educate now for a rapid adaptation, and prepare our students to mobilize with the “political and financial power” to reshape the public agenda. What can we do right now? Put this top of mind with your administration as the inevitable cuts and consolidations of programs and positions are made. Bolster short-term certificates and achievable AA programs in sustainability and advertise them, so that students who are unsure what to do next year have a flexible option. Be honest about extinction events and the climate crisis, and educate your colleagues. Teach as if life depends on it. Be kind, but be clear.

The NCSE network is a great place to find support, best practices, and a network of colleagues working to keep college—and life on Earth—as an option for survival.

As Dr. Summers noted, “If we’re going to flip the script and redefine a future that will work for everyone, community college will be the place where that can happen.” 



Read the full transcript of the discussion and summaries of other conversations about teaching climate change in higher education.