Community Colleges and the Humanities in the 21st Century

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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 excecutive 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


Grants in This Initiative

Baltimore, Maryland A grant to support the transfer of humanities students from The Community College of Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins University, as well as faculty collaborations on curriculum and pedagogy.

Cleveland, Ohio A grant to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) is supporting a humanities alliance with Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in support of humanities student transfer and stronger collaborations between faculty at the university and in the community college system. 

Los Angeles, California UCLA’s Initiative for Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) is developing new practices to reorient humanities pedagogy to 21st-century learning, with special emphases on creating inclusive classrooms, applying humanities perspectives in interdisciplinary fields, and using technology in humanities classes.

New Hampshire The Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH) and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) are developing the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative.  

New York, New York  The Graduate Center (GC) of the City University of New York (CUNY) has launched an initiative to equip PhD students to teach humanities courses at LaGuardia Community College (LCC), to enhance collaborations in pedagogy between GC and LCC humanities faculty, and to expand opportunities in the humanities for community college students.

San Diego, California  The San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are building a diverse pipeline by identifying strong transfer students in the humanities, providing supportive services during their transition, and ensuring that they graduate with essential skills. 

San Francisco, California Foothill-De Anza Community College District and the University of San Francisco are developing a transfer program to help underserved students earn four-year degrees in the humanities.

Seattle, Washington The University of Washington (UW) is developing a partnership with three two-year colleges in Seattle as part of a grant-funded program that seeks to reimagine the humanities PhD.