My Fellow Americans,
Of this faith I am not the author. But it has grown on me, through my love of community college students. It’s a faith spun by the spirit that I see working in them, in their pursuit of meaning and purpose in their lives, unleveraged as they are by privilege. If “the meek shall inherit the earth,” I see no one more deserving than community college student bodies.
In a near half century of professional involvement in higher education, I have counted myself very fortunate to find myself working inside the phenomenon that has become the community college movement. When in 1968 I signed on as Congressional liaison for the American Association of Junior Colleges, I left a higher paying job in federal administration; yet I knew instantly that I’d made the right move.
It confirmed something I’d always known about myself: I’m populist, to the bone. My mother made sure I was raised that way. Community colleges are the populists of higher education, easily as important to national progress and the promise of equality through opportunity as the cutting-edge research that American universities lead. Community colleges are the very spirit of equality through opportunity that is the spirit of America, the pulse of the American Dream.
Perhaps nothing nourishes the spirit more surely than being in the right place at the right time. That was the spirit that greeted me at AAJC. At 86, I can see that it has always been there for me. It was my good fortune for the last decade of my Washington career to lead Congressional liaison for both the AACC, evolved from AAJC, and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). It was a productive decade in federal legislation for community colleges (detailed in a separate article).
I alone have held that dual appointment, during which I continued to lend counsel to the American Student Association of Community Colleges, ASACC, which I cofounded, hoping to see college students become a strong and badly needed voice in the national affairs of higher education. I wanted their legislative priorities harmonized as much as possible with those of AACC and ACCT, and vise versa.
That a cohesive national student voice has not materialized on federal policies and programs is the largest regret of my career. It is badly needed, for at least two reasons. Students can explain their needs to Congress far better than can college presidents, who can’t help but show self interest when cast in that role. Second, student leaders need the benefit of such experience, from which the nation will benefit as they grow into careers in both the private and public sectors, occasionally as legislators themselves.
The desire to help them nurture and unify their national voice, spurred by the populist family of community colleges, keeps me working with the colleges and their student governments at every opportunity. Their student leaders now speak for the largest and fastest growing system of postsecondary education, in which women have become the largest enrollment. Their upward mobility is now bringing women three out of every five four-year degrees. The twin rockets powering their rise have been, and are, community colleges and Pell Grants. At nearly every college, women outnumber men in claiming Pell Grants. And in both urban and rural community colleges, Pell Grants ordinarily carry half or more of the students earning college credit.
Without Pell Grants, a considerable number of rural colleges could not survive. The grants enrich both the campus and community economically and culturally, as they flow from student pockets to campus needs and local merchants.
Community colleges are increasingly known as the colleges of lifelong learning, because they are most widely used by employers and employees alike to keep job skills at the changing and cutting edge. The advancing popularity of their occupational courses and tracks makes them the largest formal engine of workforce development. Four great professions that gird up the American Way are grounded in community colleges: classroom teachers, health care, law enforcement, and emergency services. Teachers use community colleges more often than universities for the courses they need to maintain their professional certification. Their successes in these areas prompted Florida a generation ago to empower all the community colleges to offer four-year degrees in education.
In their singular focus on learning, community colleges are further advantaged by the absence of overblown athletics, which have become the tail that wags the dog at too many universities, where academic prowess is often overshadowed by the pursuit of bowl bids and the fat checks and alumni cheers that go with them. If a community college wins a national title in any sport, the celebration is largely confined to the community of the winner.
Community college diversity is always reflected in their student governments. It’s almost as common to find students in their thirties as students in their teens on these freely elected boards. In my meetings through the years with student boards, that diversity has often given me the feeling of a church. In fact, it was in my first meeting with the student board of Victor Valley College, California, that this feeling first arose, a decade ago at the opening dinner of the annual July retreat of VVC’s newly formed SGB, where I would be called upon to deliver the keynote following dessert.
I shared a table with five students, and one said as dinner was being served that she had read in preparation for the retreat that I’d had a large hand in Congress’ enactment of the Pell Grant. At least two at the table were on Pell Grants, so the group was excited when I offered a brief recap of that history. On my immediate right was a new member of the board who looked more like a high school freshman than a college student. Whisker free, he was the picture of innocence. When we arose from the table 30 minutes later, this lad turned to the students rising behind him and said, “I think I’ve just dined with God.” I was so shocked I could neither laugh nor cry.
When I’d delivered my keynote, praising the glories of community colleges for their lift to the American Way and the American Dream, a faculty member who was in the audience shook my hand and said, “That was quite a sermon.”
I was invited back as advisor-team the following year, and as I was called upon for the keynote following the opening dinner, all the students unbuttoned and peeled down their shirts, to reveal identical black t-shirts. They turned so I could not miss the message emblazoned on all the backs, “The Church of the Community Colleges” in dayglo green, and below it in day-glow orange, “Rev. Frank Mensel.”
While everyone chuckled, I had a different reaction. I felt a spirituality. The students had touched the religion that had always peeked in and about my life. I could see clearly that the interest that drew me to higher education from the beginning was the students and their aspirations. They were my faith, my church. The populist church, they always will be.
The creed that fits it like a glove is the Preamble of our Constitution, which I’ve always felt is the most glorious capsulization of human aspirations for liberty ever penned, to wit:
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
That is the faith that I’ve come to appreciate as the fountain of my love of life and the pulse of my career, so richly complemented and enlarged in my bonds of many decades of professional association and friendship with spouse Dr. Bonny Franke and our families. Any audiences that risk inviting me are bound to hear about it. Maybe feel it too.
Frank Mensel (“The Rev”)
P.S. At about the time our annual engagements with the Victor Valley SGB got rolling, I received a totally unexpected accolade from a very different direction. I was at Dulles Airport looking for a dear aunt who was about to arrive from Europe when a voice from the next gate called “Frank Mensel.” I turned to see Bob Watson, a senior program officer of the National Science Foundation, approaching. He said, “Frank, have the community colleges built a monument to you yet?” When I smiled and shook me head, he continued, “NSF dragged our feet all the way, in the enactment of the Advanced Tech Education program, but you beat us at every turn. A big federal agency beaten by one dogged sob.” We laughed. Happily, during the several years that this program was evolving from the first bill in the House, Andrew Korim, vice president of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny College, came to town to help lobby it. In fact, he and I collaborated in the first draft of it, which he then persuaded his own congressman, Rep. Doug Walgren, D-PA, to introduce. Fortunately, Walgren served on the House Science Committee, and chaired a subcommittee, in which he gave the bill its first hearing. When Walgren lost his seat, more senior Members were then backing the bill. Their support got it enacted. That program in its first year increased NSF funding for community colleges tenfold. Before its enactment, NSF funding to community colleges had never exceeded $3.5 million a year. In its first year, Advanced Tech awarded $35 million in grants to community colleges. — FM