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Interview with Thomas Brock, Ph.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University’s Community College Research Center on Community Colleges, DEI, and STEM in Public Higher Education

About Thomas Brock, Ph.D.: Thomas Brock is the Director of the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. As Director, he oversees numerous impactful initiatives that empower community colleges nationwide through a combination of applied research, educational webinars and trainings, and action-oriented publications to advance diversity, equity, and social justice. Dr. Brock is also a Research Professor at Teachers College, where he teaches a course on community colleges and conducts research on the efficacy of policies and programs that aim to improve education outcomes for post-secondary students.

Prior to his role at the CCRC, Dr. Brock was the Commissioner for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). As Commissioner, he spearheaded and supervised an innovative research program that involved launching research centers nationwide to examine college enrollment and completion, the effects of remedial/developmental education, and career and technical education, among other topics.

Dr. Brock began his career in policy and social programs research at MDRC, a social policy research organization that is dedicated to identifying solutions to problems such as poverty and lack of educational opportunities for underprivileged individuals and families. From 2004 to 2013, he served as the Director of the Young Adults and Post-Secondary Education Division of MDRC. During his time as Director, he oversaw research-based evaluations of several community college reforms, such as Achieving the Dream and the Opening Doors Demonstration. Dr. Brock earned his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Pitzer College, his Master of Public Administration from Columbia University, and his Ph.D. in Social Welfare from UCLA.

Interview Questions

[] Could you elaborate on your academic and professional background and what inspired you to devote your career to research that empowers education practitioners?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] I attended Pitzer College in Claremont, California for my undergrad. I was an anthropology major and focused on social and cultural anthropology. While we usually think about anthropology as focusing on foreign cultures, I became aware of and very interested in some anthropological literature at the time that was looking at social problems and issues within the U.S. I wanted to use an anthropological lens to really examine and try to understand social problems from the perspective of the people most affected by them. I especially wanted to look into the causes of poverty in the U.S. There were some interesting studies that I read in college where anthropologists went to low-income communities to try to understand people’s experiences and report on their interactions with government aid programs and social workers. It grabbed my interest and attention.

Coming out of college, I thought I wanted to carry on with that kind of work. I wanted to be engaged in more applied work, thinking about ways to address poverty in the United States. I went to Columbia for a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I chose Columbia in large part because of the social work school and the ability to create a program that had a strong emphasis on social welfare policy. I wanted to understand both historic and current policies and practices related to welfare provision, employment, training, education, and services of that nature.

Coming out of Columbia, I was 22. I had a certain interest and passion, not a lot of experience, and was looking around for my first job. In the library of Columbia, I came across some reports from an organization called MDRC that was a relatively new organization at that time but was conducting research to try to better understand the effects of social policies and programs, with a particular focus on low-income people and low-income communities. It was based right there in New York, so I thought, I am going to write to them and ask for an informational interview. I did, and it went well, and they had an opening and I ended up really starting my career there.

What is extraordinary about MDRC’s work is that they are directly engaged with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other groups around the country that are trying to tackle some of the most challenging issues around income support and income maintenance, human capital development, and ways to provide people with the support and the training and the tools they need to improve their economic condition.

At the time, I was very young and so I was mostly just working in a research assistant role, but through that I really came to understand and appreciate the value of research in providing a deeper understanding of economic and social justice problems and issues, and shedding light on programs that worked as well as programs that did not work. And MDRC was very much at the heart of those conversations. This was in the mid-1980s at this point. It was my MDRC work that inspired me to go on for the Ph.D. and get more research training so that I could eventually design and lead studies in this area. I chose a program at UCLA in social welfare to dig into and more deeply learn from people from a variety of disciplines. I had my anthropology background, but UCLA was just very strong in the social sciences across the board and I was interested in a program through which I could draw from and combine different fields.

My dissertation work at UCLA ended up focusing on the implementation of a California law called Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) which was intended to be a comprehensive welfare reform. The GAIN legislation put a lot more emphasis on education and skill building as opposed to some of the alternatives that were gaining popularity at the time, such as workfare and other approaches that were more punitive in nature. California, at least, tried to think of welfare reform more from the standpoint of the recipients and what kinds of support and services they would need to get ahead economically.

It was in the course of my dissertation that I first became familiar with community colleges, which as it turned out were playing a very significant role in delivering a lot of the services and working directly with people on welfare. When I finished my Ph.D., I went back to MDRC, which had recently won a large federal contract to evaluate the implementation and effects of welfare reform in different parts of the country. But the policy environment, as we got into the 1990s and early 2000s, increasingly became very punitive and I did not see a lot of hope, honestly. The kinds of things welfare offices were doing or what they were allowed to do given the legislative environment and where the conversation was going nationally just did not inspire confidence or optimism.

But the one bright spot was always community colleges. I found that being on campuses was just a very different feeling. The people who work at community colleges, the administrators, faculty and staff, just have a different orientation to the communities they serve and the people they work with than welfare agencies. They provide a wide range of training and educational opportunities and do not constrict people’s opportunities, really, in any way. Quite the contrary—they are set up to open doors that perhaps might have been shut for people before. They are open access institutions.

My career ended up shifting entirely to focusing on community colleges because of the disappointment and discouragement I felt in the more traditional social welfare environment. That brings us up to now, and my current role as the Director of the Community College Research Center.

[] This is a great opportunity to segue to a discussion of your role at the CCRC. Could you elaborate on this organization and your role as Director?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] The Community College Research Center has been around for more than 25 years. I have been here about four and a half now, so I am relatively new. I work with a group of colleagues–we have about 60 people in total–who are interested in and study community colleges. We do very applied research that is really designed to help community colleges improve.

We start with the community college mission which is one of open access, one of trying to provide education and training to help people move into employment or to move on to higher levels of education. But despite that mission, many students who go to community college struggle or drop out for a lot of reasons. Completion rates, if you look nationally, are relatively low at community colleges.

What we try to do is partner with community colleges that are interested in doing better. We work with them to develop new interventions or new approaches to teaching and learning and delivering advising and/or financial aid to students. We design and conduct research to look at the implementation and effectiveness of those programs, then use this information to try to change practice on the ground and to inform policymaking so that there is more support at the federal level or the state level or the local level to direct resources and attention to where it is most needed.

The ideas and approaches we study often come from community colleges themselves. We are along for the ride. We try to provide the resource support and an independent, more critical lens to see if the ideas they have are actually making a difference. But it is a two-way street. Sometimes we come in with thoughts and perspectives, other times it is really more from the ground up.

[] It sounds like fascinating and fulfilling work. If a community college collaborates with the CCRC and finds a specific program, initiative, curriculum structure, and/or financial aid process that works really well for them, how does the CCRC publish that research and disseminate it to other community colleges to help them improve their practices?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] Good question. We increasingly rely on the internet in a variety of ways. The simplest and most basic is putting material on our website that people can access and download for free. All of our materials are readily available and accessible.

We make a point of writing and producing material that is written for practitioners so even though we do high quality research, we try to describe it in plain language. We try to get to the point so people do not have to read a 50-page report when perhaps a few pages are all that is needed to help practitioners and leaders understand what was attempted, what was learned, and what the takeaways were that might influence their practice. So it begins often with the publications.

But we do not stop there. We increasingly do webinars and other kinds of outreach activity online–again, all free of charge, to try to engage colleges directly and share what we are learning. We will invite colleges to Teachers College and engage them in workshops to learn and apply some of the principles from our research to their own college. The way we often do that is by working with colleges around their own data to give them some of the skills to look at how their students are doing over time, to look at particular subgroups of students who might be doing better or might be having difficulties and then think about what the implications are from the research to direct more attention to students in need.

We go out into the country and speak and present and do workshops as well. Pre-pandemic, we were on the road, I would say, almost every week. That came to a screeching halt during the pandemic but it is starting to pick up a little bit again. We work with some of the national community college organizations. We have an advisory board, for example, that includes the directors of the American Association of Community Colleges, Achieving the Dream, and the League for Innovation in Community Colleges. These are national organizations that have their own networks, and we often partner with them to design workshops or sessions where we can be communicating what we are learning and engage with community college professionals to understand their experience.

[] You are a member of the advisory committee for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for STEM Education (EDU), which used to be the Directorate of Education and Human Resources. Could you elaborate on this role and EDU’s mission, and what divisions and offices of EDU you advise and why there has been such a strong focus on STEM in enhancing education equity and student attainment?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] I have been on the NSF advisory board for about three years now. The National Science Foundation is a federally funded agency that works to advance STEM education. That is core to their mission. More broadly, its mission is to ensure the United States stays a leader in science, technology, engineering and math, and they work to achieve this in a variety of ways.

I believe there are four or five major divisions within NSF. The EDU division that you mentioned is primarily focused on improving K-12 and post-secondary education. The programs that they run are designed to improve teaching and learning, encourage innovation in classroom teaching, and support strategies to get more students interested in STEM at all levels of education. They have had a particular focus in recent years on trying to diversify the STEM profession. That means getting more female students and students of color who have been underrepresented in STEM fields exposed to STEM opportunities early and building their confidence in STEM.

With regards to trying to get more women and girls into STEM, there are some very interesting insights. At the K-12 level, girls actually tend to do better in STEM, are more interested, more engaged, relative to boys. But it tends to flip when you get to post-secondary education. You see young women dropping out of these fields in favor of other kinds of education and more men ending up with degrees in STEM at the postsecondary level. One of the things that NSF and this division has focused on is trying to change that so that more women take STEM courses in college and graduate school and enter STEM professions.

Increasingly, NSF is examining its investments through an equity lens. The agency is trying to understand which groups are being left out of STEM programs for whatever reason, and what might be better strategies to get students into STEM. There is a commitment to devote resources to expand awareness for many students who simply just do not know what opportunities exist or do not see themselves in those kinds of opportunities. It’s been quite interesting and exciting to be part of those conversations and to learn what experts in this field are doing.

I suspect I was invited onto their advisory panel to bring more of a community college focus. Historically, NSF had not done as much for community colleges as for other sectors in higher education. To advance equity, NSF is putting much more attention on community colleges and the students they serve.

[] What kinds of initiatives do the NSF and EDU design and implement to encourage underrepresented individuals to engage in STEM?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] NSF is largely a funding agency, so much of what they do is to provide grants to institutions and organizations all over the country that are focused on STEM. Much of their funding goes directly to colleges and universities at the postsecondary level, or to K-12 districts. They also fund nonprofit and other organizations to run programs. It really runs the full gamut, and many of the programs that NSF funds are multi-million-dollar investments, so they are quite significant.

Some NSF grants are about improving teaching–for example, supporting a K-12 district to run professional development programs for faculty to learn how to teach math more effectively using the latest knowledge around math instruction. Other grants are for extracurricular programs that try to excite kids about and make them more aware of STEM and have opportunities to engage in hands-on science projects. For example, the NSF might fund a program that allows students to collect environmental data, to measure the quality of water in their local streams or to measure the pH balance of soil in an agricultural community. There are applications and uses throughout. But the key is trying to find fun and interesting ways to get kids excited and which go beyond what is in the standard K-12 curriculum.

At the post-secondary level, many of the grant programs that the NSF provides support purchasing new equipment, improvement of facilities to enhance the way science is taught to undergraduates, etc. It may include scholarships or fellowships to support students in their studies, particularly as they go on to graduate school.

Curriculum development is another big area: learning how to teach better, how to teach subjects like environmental science more effectively. Climate change, of course, is a big issue. Developing the curriculum, creating tools for teachers to be able to introduce concepts around climate change to their students at whatever grade level. These are just some of the examples of things that the NSF does.

[] You served as the Commissioner for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) from 2013 to 2018. Could you elaborate on the research programs you spearheaded and the kinds of data that these initiatives collected and analyzed to inform educational program improvements for students of all ages?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] The National Center for Education Research (NCER) is one of four centers within the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the research, evaluation and statistics arm of the US Department of Education. Within NCER, our mission was to fund research that would address the nation’s most pressing educational needs. In particular, our purpose was to support field-initiated work: ideas that emerge from education researchers, practitioners, and others about ways to improve education.

Our objective was to provide research funding to allow high quality data collection, analysis, and evaluation to take place. Our scope was broad. We funded everything from pre-kindergarten programs all the way through adult and postsecondary education. We also funded research within particular topic areas. We had a program for research on reading and ways to improve reading skills, for example. We had a program around social and behavioral skill building and discovering effective ways in which those skills could be taught in schools.

So much of what we did was what you might call research and development. A research team or maybe a school district or nonprofit organization might have a promising idea, a way to improve reading comprehension and raise reading scores within a school district, for example. We did not fund the intervention, but we would fund research on the implementation and effectiveness of the intervention to see whether or not it led to measurable improvements over what existed previously or what might be considered business-as-usual.

We also funded more work on an exploratory level just to understand the root causes of education problems and challenges. For example, we have been struggling as a nation to address what are sometimes referred to as racial equity gaps: differences in test scores between white students and Black and Latinx students, for example, or differences by race in how many students are suspended for behavioral issues. NCER would support research to understand what might be happening within school districts that leads to these kinds of patterns, with the hope that this exploratory research would lead to new ideas or intervention strategies to address these issues.

[] During your time leading NCER, you also launched national research centers and networks. Could you discuss these centers and their impact?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] NCER had grants at different levels. The national centers or the networks tended to be our largest grants. Those were our “big bets,” topic areas where we felt major research was needed. They would involve large teams or maybe even multiple teams working around the country to tackle a major education challenge or problem facing the country.

Just to give an example, in post-secondary education, there has been a lot of consternation over the years with what is called developmental education or remedial education. Developmental/remedial classes are designed to teach basic skills, such as math and reading and writing, to students coming into college who were considered unprepared or underprepared.

First, there was a lot of exploratory research to suggest that these developmental classes were not producing good outcomes. Students were coming in, getting discouraged and dropping out of college, but very rarely would they actually acquire the skills needed to move into college level coursework. NCER funded two centers to identify new teaching strategies or approaches that might reverse these trends and test bolder ideas to bring up the skill levels of underprepared students who are entering college. This is a big issue in community colleges and other open access institutions.

Developmental education is an area where NCER-funded centers have had tremendous success. For example, one study focused on improving the process community colleges use to measure students’ English and math skills and place them into developmental or college-level courses. In the past, most community colleges relied on a single standardized test to make this this determination. Unfortunately, many students do poorly on standardized tests, and this results in large numbers of students being placed into developmental courses. Very few students who get placed into developmental courses advance to college-level courses or earn degrees.

NCER-funded researchers hypothesized that community colleges could get a better sense of students’ true abilities and make more accurate placements if they took into account students’ high school grades in tandem with standardized test scores. The researchers conducted a rigorous evaluation that involved thousands of students and compared outcomes for students placed by a single standardized test versus a multiple measures approach, and found that students placed with multiple measures had much better outcomes.

Specifically, more students took college-level coursework and passed college courses. Now, with many years of follow-up, researchers are finding that students who were placed with multiple measures assessment are more likely to earn college degrees. To think that simply changing assessment and placement practices would have such an effect on students’ longer-term trajectory in college! These findings are getting out into the world and already have influenced practice in many institutions. Some states have even mandated now that multiple measures assessment must be used in place of just standardized tests alone.

[] How are social policy, education research and practice and social justice intertwined?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] They really are intertwined. This country, to its credit, has a system of post-secondary education that provides access to almost everyone, mainly because we have community colleges.

If you look around the world, not many countries allow everyone into postsecondary education. It is usually really reserved for students who achieve certain grades or test scores. Some countries have systems where they decide very early on that you will go into an academic profession or you will go into a trade of some sort. They may have schools that teach trades and those are important skills, but you can very rarely cross the divide between learning how to be a plumber, for example, and going on to study sociology or English literature. They just do not make that possible.

In the United States, we do. We give people multiple chances. With community college, you could get a skill and a degree that is ready to plug you right into a job and you can also take courses that will prepare you for transfer to a four-year college or university and earn a bachelor’s degree. And that is really remarkable. We can look at all that and say on the one hand, this is a great opportunity. On the other hand, far too many students who begin community college with the intention of earning a degree do not achieve their goal.

Very frequently students at community college are lower income. Very frequently they are first-generation college students. Very frequently they have not had the best educational experience in K-12. So many students enter community college with a lot of need, and yet community colleges do not have the resources to fully address those needs.

I think this gets at some of your questions around equity. If you look at higher education funding in this country, community colleges get far less per student from the state or local governments than public four-year institutions get, and far less than many four-year private institutions will spend. You might say, “well, community colleges have a narrower role. They are not trying to train lawyers and doctors, for example. They don’t need to have the research facilities of a place like UCLA or Stanford.” And all that is true. But even if you isolate to the particular functions like student advising, for example, community colleges get so much less per student than four-year institutions do.

Likewise with instruction, if you just look at how much is spent per student in the classroom, why should community colleges be funded at such a lower level? What ends up happening is that community colleges hire a lot of faculty on a part-time basis. These faculty get paid very little. They may be hard-working and well-intentioned, but they are not attached to the institution in the same way as tenured professors at four-year colleges and universities. Generally speaking, community colleges also have less money to hire support staff. The result is that counselors and advisers have very large caseloads and cannot give students the individualized attention they need.

So, we create all this open access, all of this opportunity, but we do not really deliver the academic support that students need to succeed. This really gets to the heart of the equity issue and the challenge and some of the questions we are trying to raise about higher education financing at one level and then what kinds of services and supports need to be in place in order for students to be successful.

To cultivate equity, students need resources, support, and maybe a third leg on the stool would be more structure. Community colleges tend to be organized in a way that we refer to as the cafeteria model. They offer lots of programs, lots of classes, lots of things you can do. But students coming in often do not see clear pathways–for example, what courses do I need to take and in what sequence to get a degree most efficiently in an area that is going to lead to a job or lead to transfer? So, colleges need to be thinking about ways to provide better guidance so that students come in and have a plan and know what to do when they experience challenges.

[] Looking forward, what challenges and opportunities do you see for community colleges and education leaders such as yourself who are seeking to increase educational attainment for students of diverse backgrounds?

[Dr. Thomas Brock] One opportunity, starting on the positive, is community colleges are getting a lot of attention and focus right now. Even in a country that is as polarized as ours is politically, community colleges get support from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals tend to like community colleges for different reasons but they all like community colleges.

So, I think there’s an opportunity here to maybe build consensus, to actually address some of these funding challenges. I feel optimistic going forward that we are going to gain some significant traction. The current administration, of course, has been particularly pro-community college. But it has been true of Republican administrations as well. I do not see anything that would change that. I think this momentum, this interest is building.

With respect to challenges, community colleges were very hard hit because of the pandemic. They were hit much harder than four-year colleges and universities partly for reasons we have talked about. They had fewer resources to begin with, and so they had less to fall back on when things got really bad, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. It is also true that the students community colleges serve were more likely to be affected by the pandemic. These include low-income communities and communities of color.

There has been a lot of learning loss, not just in community college space but also in K-12 as schools had to shift to largely online classes and programs. This worked okay for some students but it did not really work very well for many others. It is especially hard to teach applied workforce skills online: for example, auto repair, welding, or nursing. These are popular programs of study at many community colleges.

Going forward, the adaptations made during the pandemic afford an opportunity for community colleges to think about ways to deliver instruction and services of all kinds in a more nimble way. Community colleges, to their credit, managed to put in place technological adaptations and solutions to provide more hybrid or online courses–for example, to provide tools so advisors could do advising online or in person.

I think the more we create a full range of modalities for students to experience community college, I think we might actually see improvements in enrollment and persistence and outcomes because students can more readily avail themselves of opportunities. Pre-pandemic, you had to go on campus to do everything, and that just does not always work for students who are working, raising kids, doing all the things that community college students often are doing. I see more flexibility, perhaps, coming out of the pandemic and a fuller range of experiences or opportunities that students can avail themselves of to try to accomplish their goals.

Thank you, Dr. Thomas Brock, for your amazing insight into the role that community colleges play in career and economic mobility in the United States, and for your discussion of how community colleges and policymakers can cultivate education equity, particularly for underserved and underrepresented student populations!