President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative has thrown our nation into a global contest for primacy in college attainment. It also, arguably, threatens to seed a sort of class system in American higher education. Other nations already unabashedly steer students into distinct tracks: baccalaureate degrees for the privileged, and career training for the not-so-privileged. Indeed, America’s community college model now takes flak for offering both traditional collegiate fare and job training.

St. John’s College, bastion of liberal learning. (Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

In the national dialogue around college access and success for our most disadvantaged populations, discussion about liberal education is largely absent. We must consider the unintended consequences of this near absence. Do we risk recreating a two-tier educational system?

The answer to that question is yes, and the consequences are significant. We tend to offer some – typically our more disadvantaged, low-income populations – a more limited education that may prepare them for jobs for two or three years before they need to be re-trained. Meanwhile, we tend to offer others – disproportionately a more privileged group – a lifelong, liberal education that appreciates over time, preparing them for entire careers, and for jobs that may not even exist yet in our rapidly evolving economy.

The notion of a liberal education is one to pause on. Liberal education can be found at community colleges, public institutions, and private institutions. It is an approach to education that focuses on the development of capacities such as writing, effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and ethical reasoning. These skills are practical, transferrable, and essential for the life-long learning that we all need if we are to thrive in a world that is complex, diverse, and ever-changing.

We need these skills on an everyday basis – whether we’re trying to effectively communicate with our cell phone companies about a billing issue, or trying to think critically about strategies to best shape the personal and professional lives we hope to lead. Yet, these capacities are not solely needed for our private lives. We need these capacities when reading the newspaper, casting our vote, and considering our contributions to the greater good.

For these reasons, liberal education may be the fullest and richest form of college education, and so we ought to be more strategic about positioning it to create access to opportunity and success over a lifetime for our most disadvantaged populations.

As an example, for the past six years, the Teagle Foundation has supported a program called “College-Community Connections” to address this near absence of liberal education in access and success initiatives. College-Community Connections, or CCC, is a program that introduces high school students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to what a liberal education means and aims to best prepare them for college at whichever institution they may choose.

Since its inception, CCC has been designed to build bridges between secondary and higher education; community-based organizations partner with colleges and universities in the New York City metropolitan area for this program. The program requires students to think critically about issues and ideas, integrate ideas from various sources, understand different perspectives, and connect learning in the classroom to real world situations. An emphasis is also placed on the social responsibilities of being a college student, including navigating the admission process, managing the amount of work involved, and taking advantage of the various campus support services readily available to students.

The CCC results to date have been promising; an evaluation conducted by Metis Associates, an independent national research and evaluation firm, indicated that the program has helped financially disadvantaged students (79 percent of whom are eligible to receive reduced-price meals in school) develop the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and also become more thoughtful in their own college search processes. To use Metis’s words, the program is a “highly effective model,” providing authentic college experiences for highly talented but disadvantaged youth to “expose them to the rigors, realities, and possibilities of a liberal education.”

Undoubtedly, the jig-saw puzzle of college access and success in the United States is complex, and the College-Community Connections program is only one small piece of it. Yet as we work toward access and success for all students, and as we work toward expanding opportunity for our most disadvantaged students, seriously considering liberal education – in both two-year and four-year institutions – may be a key puzzle piece.