Community Colleges and the Humanities in the 21st Century

“If you can figure out how to help more community college students be successful, you can solve some big problems for the country as a whole,” says former Mellon Executive Vice President Mariët Westermann.

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By developing programming in support of these students today, we're investing in the future of humanities scholarship, higher education, and American democracy.

More than a third of our nation’s seventeen million undergraduate college students are currently enrolled in community colleges. Representing an astounding range of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, eighty percent of these students hope to pursue a four-year baccalaureate degree. Forty-nine percent of recent graduates of four-year colleges enrolled in a community college at some point in their college trajectory. And many of them – the number has tripled in the last quarter-century – are pursuing studies in the humanities. According to the 2015 Humanities Indicators report, the numbers continue to grow.

The vast, affordable, and extraordinarily diverse community college system is central to the national debate about access and quality in postsecondary education, and about work life readiness for the next generation of Americans. This debate takes place at a time when postsecondary educational attainment in the United States remains below 50 percent for the 25-34 year-old age group, and the country’s ranking for this measure is 10th among 35 OECD countries. A host of obstacles, from financial constraints to inefficient transfer pathways, prevents too many aspiring community college students from realizing their dream of a bachelor’s degree.  As such degrees translate into significant economic and other benefits over a lifetime, the loss of transfer students along the way to graduation merits the attention of all who care about the health of our system of higher education, our economy, and our democracy.


At The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’re trying to unpack what all of this means. We are particularly interested in learning how, with targeted support for students and faculty at community colleges and four-year institutions alike, we can help more students succeed at obtaining an impactful humanities education.

The Mellon Foundation’s Community College-Research University Partnership (CCUP) initiative, now in its third year, addresses these challenges and opportunities in several dimensions. First, it supports clearer articulation of pathways for aspiring humanities students into strong four-year colleges, so that every credit earned counts towards the bachelor’s degree. Second, in support of more successful student transfers, it fosters collaborations between humanities faculty in proximate two- and four-year institutions who are dedicated to making a difference. Third, it assists the colleges in making the case for the value of a humanities degree for economically successful and civically engaged lives.  And fourth, it gives university faculty and doctoral students access to knowledge about inclusive teaching practices in the diverse classrooms that are the norm in community colleges.

Community college faculty tend to be driven by a strong sense of mission, but their high teaching loads make it difficult for them to support their most motivated students as fully as they would like. By providing teachers and doctoral candidates with resources to prepare community college humanities majors for success, we can improve outcomes for individual students while nurturing the next generation of scholars in history, literature, philosophy, art, gender studies, and numerous other disciplines. 

Mellon CCUP grants typically focus on two interventions. First, the community college and its four-year partner together provide preparatory programs that expose transfer students early to professors and peers who teach and mentor them in university-level classes, undergraduate research, and extracurricular and community-based projects. Second, the partnering faculties develop joint seminars and workshops to nurture a common culture of transfer support between the two campuses. Faculty collaborations include curriculum development, with an emphasis on making community college humanities courses connect better to the major in four-year institutions. University faculty and doctoral students learn how to draw on the variety of personal experiences in diverse classrooms as a resource for teaching.

Major challenges for students new to four-year institutions, like receiving credit for similar courses they have already taken at the associate level, or adjusting to the scale of a university campus, can be overcome when faculties work together. With nine partnerships between community colleges and research universities now active around the country, from New York to New Hampshire, from El Paso to San Diego, and from Baltimore, Maryland to Barrow, Alaska, students are seeing first-hand how transformative these results can be.


As seven million students work toward an associate degree this year, there’s no underestimating the scale of opportunity for four-year institutions that welcome these students in an intentional way. In 2014, community colleges awarded 350,000 associate degrees in the humanities; in 1987, that number was just over 100,000. At the moment, too few of these graduates proceed to the bachelor’s degree. If humanities scholars can devise new approaches to attracting and supporting more of these students, our institutions and disciplines will benefit along with the students.

And it’s not just the academy that stands to gain. The societal implications of shoring up the associate to baccalaureate pipeline are just as meaningful. The demographic makeup of community colleges—comprising 23 percent Latino students, 13 percent black students, six percent Asians or Pacific Islanders, and numerous veterans, returning parents, and other non-traditional learners—closely resemble the expected composition of the United States in 2050. By then, the country will be one of the most diverse in the world, and all of our corporations, small businesses, government agencies, and institutions of education and culture will require a workforce prepared to collaborate across difference. By offering students entry into the astonishingly diverse human cultural record, we recognize that the humanities are key to that preparation.

Mariet Westermann served as executive vice president for programs and research at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through August 2019.

Infographic Source

American Association of Community Colleges, Fast Facts 2017 & Trends in Community College Enrollment and Completion Data, June 2017



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The New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative is rekindling enthusiasm for the humanities by helping community college students find meaningful employment and aiding in the transfer process to four-year institutions.



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Igniting Confidence and Building the Humanities Pipeline

The Johns Hopkins-Community College of Baltimore County Humanities for All Program builds confidence and research skills for community college students.



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Community Colleges and Universities Collaborate to Foster the Next Generation of Humanities Scholars

A new initiative from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the CUNY Graduate Center and LaGuardia Community College supports students on their pathway from an associate to a baccalaureate degree in the humanities.



Community Colleges and the Humanities in the 21st Century

“If you can figure out how to help more community college students be successful, you can solve some big problems for the country as a whole,” says former Mellon Executive Vice President Mariët Westermann.