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Break the Ivory Tower: Making the Modern College Accessible and Relatable

The modern college must be accessible to everyone in its community and responsive to their needs. This is how colleges can position themselves as engines of economic and social change.
The modern college must be accessible to everyone in its community and responsive to their needs. This is how colleges can position themselves as engines of economic and social change.

Modern colleges have an incredibly complex and challenging role to play. They must engage and attract major employers to their communities. They must maintain programmatic agility to ensure offerings are market-responsive while still delivering quality. And they must be set up to serve everyone in their community—at every level of the economic ladder—and enable them to continue to grow. 

In this interview, EdUp Experience host Joe Sallustio and guest host Michelle Cantu-Wilson connect with Anthony Cruz to reflect on how modern community colleges must position themselves to ensure the institution is accessible, relatable and impactful for everyone.

EdUp Experience (EdUp): What role can the community college play in supporting the local workforce?

Anthony Cruz (AC): We have eight campuses across the Miami Dade College system, and all are involved with supporting economic and workforce development in our community.

Our college president—Madeline Pumariega—has been engaged deeply across the community and with local employers and corporations to make sure we’re providing economic opportunities to our residents and our students. 

As a community college, we’re very nimble and flexible when it comes to creating new programs. So, we’re doing that; we’re listening to these employers at corporations like Microsoft and Amazon and trying to fill the gaps wherever we can with new programs. We’re particularly focusing on small, shorter certificate programs that people earn with four to five classes. Even for folks with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, you can get those four classes under your belt, get that certificate and go out and, and actually get one of these high-paying tech jobs.

EdUp: We have a lot of folks—specifically students of color and male students—disappearing from the higher education ecosystem, and it’s leaders like you who are bringing them back in. It’s so important. How are you and your team working to break down the barriers that stand in the way of access, persistence and success for Hispanic and Latinx students? 

AC: Across the college system, our learner population is about 75% Hispanic, and our campus in particular is 95% Hispanic. There are several challenges that come with that, and a few specific ways we’re addressing them.

Number one, we serve a significant immigrant population. So, first and foremost, we need to make sure we can communicate with them in Spanish. Otherwise, we’re reaching this population in a language they may not be familiar with. Doing things bilingually helps a lot.

Secondly, we’re dealing with many first-generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds. Our campus serves the highest percentage of students who receive Pell Grants. So, we’re working to address the daily challenges our students face. For example, all our campuses have food banks. We’re working with students on mental health issues. We’re working with students to help acclimatize them to college. And what I’ve been trying to do here a little more than before here is work with parents and get them involved.

We’re working to address these challenges while putting together market-responsive programs because we can really drive change. We have significant tech and healthcare industries in our communities, so we need to make sure we’re preparing our students for these good-paying jobs. 

What’s we’re trying to do is provide opportunities for them to get a leg up and get to a better place—not just for themselves but also for their families.

EdUp: During COVID—at the beginning of the pandemic—you were out in the community, at the food banks, loading groceries into students’ cars and going to their houses. You were really flattening the hierarchy of higher ed and making yourself available, accessible and relatable. Why do you feel like that matters so much to a campus like yours?

AC: The ivory tower doesn’t do much good. After all, there is no practical application of the ivory tower in this community. 

Yes, we’re a higher education institution—I’m not trying to reduce what we do or who we are—but we can’t make it this hierarchical structure. We can’t make it an ivory tower that nobody can reach. The college has to be relatable to people, and me getting out there and doing the things I do helps that. 

A lot of times, people will not even realize I’m the president! I’m generally just wearing my t-shirt and jeans. It’s not a show for me; it’s a reality. I’m trying to model behavior for our staff and faculty to make sure everyone understands that we are not in an ivory tower. 

We offer amazing educational opportunities to our students. We have great faculty, great staff and we do all the things that other higher education institutions do. But our mission is to reach the people and to reach the community.

We are here to serve the community. We are a community college.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full episode, visit