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A Societal Imperative
Changing the way we think about community colleges

By Pamela Burdman

 
RECENTLY, while browsing the aisles of my local Barnes and Noble, I noticed something that I had never seen. On a display of books about education was a propped-up copy of “The Community College Guide: The Essential Reference From Application to Graduation.” As I have spent most of my time and energy in the last several years focused on community college student success, the blue-and-white paperback seemed to be staring straight at me.

The guide, written by two faculty members at Bronx Community College, includes chapters such as “The application process in 20 documents or less,” “ESL and remediation: not just for beginners,” “Overcoming procrastination,” and “Transferring to a four-year school.”

I felt some ambivalence upon perusing the book: On the one hand, I feared that becoming the subject of a college guide could push two-year colleges into a competitive and rankings-driven four-year mold, away from their core mission of providing opportunity for students who traditionally are not served, or not well-served, by four-year institutions—part-time students, low-income students and adult students, for example. On the other hand, the topics did seem relevant and the content accurate. Why shouldn’t students considering two-year colleges have some guidance in their decisions? The book seemed to be tangible evidence that community colleges are being recognized for their central role in educating Americans.

For too long, two-year colleges have been not just the stepchild of our higher education system, but often an afterthought within the entire education pipeline. This fact is one of the premises of “The Community College Guide.” “We, of course, have known about this unheralded treasure for years,” wrote the authors. “To tell the truth, we’ve also been frustrated by the bad rap community college has received for so long. Too many haven’t recognized these schools as serious institutions of learning, and even more have simply ignored community colleges altogether.”

This neglect has in fact had a cruel impact on educational opportunity for our least advantaged students. Until recently, a myopic focus on four-year universities has been common among policymakers, journalists and researchers, making it hard to see the real needs of community colleges and their students. Knowing that students may be more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees if they start at four-year institutions, many advocates have pushed for steering students away from community colleges and toward four-year universities.

Programs abound to help promising disadvantaged students to enroll in four-year colleges and earn scholarships for their education. Too often policy discussions about college access end up obsessed with admissions standards at elite public institutions—even as policymakers neglect the needs of two-year colleges and their students by funding them poorly or limiting access, for example. Financial aid opportunities for community college students generally remain slim—even though these students often have greater need than university students.

It is important to ensure that disadvantaged students are not shut out of elite institutions. But a sole focus on four-year universities never constituted a strategy for raising education levels. Nearly half of the nation’s college students attend community colleges, a fact that can’t be changed by disparaging or ignoring community colleges. And these are the students who are least likely to succeed without effective educational strategies.

Sandy Astin, former higher education professor at UCLA, argued compellingly in these pages about a decade ago that higher education treats underprepared students (the bulk of community colleges’ students) as pariahs, concentrating them in community colleges and hiring part-time instructors to teach them. “We manage to avoid contact with most underprepared students through selective admissions, by tracking them into community colleges, by hiring outsiders to teach them, and by continuing to support grading and norm-based testing practices in the lower schools that almost guarantee that large proportions of them will be discouraged from even considering further education beyond high school.”

To be sure, as Astin and other advocates of better support for community colleges are the first to admit, two-year colleges do not serve their students as well as they should. Too few students complete degrees or credentials. Too many students arrive ill-prepared for the demands of college, and, more often than not, colleges fail to help those students navigate those demands. But rather than the fault solely of the colleges themselves, these outcomes are also a direct result of years of neglect of the colleges and their students.

Isn’t ensuring that more community college students can succeed a societal imperative? While I haven’t heard serious opposition to that goal, I agree with Astin’s charge that elitism is at play. But I am also convinced that one reason some policymakers have been reluctant to seriously consider community colleges is that the solutions to improving student success there haven not been obvious. It is easier to reach for ready-made answers, like tinkering with admissions standards or changing tuition policy. While those can be beneficial, they will not, on their own, ensure that more students can complete community college.

For this reason, I celebrate the new attention that is coming to community colleges. Suddenly, in social situations, I observe a new curiosity about them. Friends, after seeing a spot on the evening news or a New York Times article, are praising me for focusing on these unsung institutions. Reporters are peppering me with questions. Community colleges are cropping up in newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, legislative proposals, even a new television sitcom, Community, on NBC.

The new attention is not a mere accident. Rather, it results from a confluence of forces. In particular, the current economic crisis and job loss have stimulated thinking about how states and regions can re-train workers to prepare them for new industries. As in the case of past recessions, the downturn is bringing more students to colleges’ doors. But this time, the recession’s severity and the intense focus on job creation have cast a brighter spotlight on this traditional workforce preparation role of our community colleges.

At the same time, the rising cost of universities is making community colleges attractive to more students. And even before the recession sent students pouring into community colleges, the cresting of the “baby boomlet” was having its own influence. Some large public university systems that once relied on high school seniors to fill seats had begun getting creative about ways of keeping enrollment up, including through attracting more transfer students.

But that’s not all. For the last few years, a small but growing number of advocates and analysts inside and outside the community college system have underscored the point that the nation’s challenges of postsecondary access and attainment won’t be solved by focusing on AP courses or elite campus admissions alone. Some of their efforts have been foundation-funded. The Bridges to Opportunity program, funded by the Ford Foundation, focused on building a policy agenda in six states for improving opportunities for low-income adults. Achieving the Dream, a multi-college initiative supported by Lumina Foundation and others, helps colleges use data and research to improve the impact of programs and services on lifting student success. And in California, the Hewlett Foundation (my former employer) and the Irvine Foundation have supported numerous efforts to strengthen community colleges from within, and to highlight policies that are most conducive to student success. Still other efforts have grown on their own, outside the limelight and without foundation funding.

Over the last five or ten years, community college champions have successfully begun to challenge the norm and change the conversations in state houses and system offices, newsrooms and board rooms. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation entered the picture, staking perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars on increasing postsecondary completion among low-income young adults. Naturally, this includes a major focus on community colleges. A simple calculus seemed to drive the decision: Anyone wishing to address the root causes of poverty in America could not ignore institutions that serve such large numbers of low-income young people. Though the calculus is not new, it is no longer being ignored.

Community college leaders in general are happy to see “The Community College Guide” in their bookstores. They will cheer the appointment of Martha Kanter, former chancellor of Foothill DeAnza Community College District, as Undersecretary of Education. They will revel in Jill Biden’s decision to continue as a community college English instructor even after her husband was elected Vice President. And they will applaud the Obama administration’s proposed community college initiative, which would pump billions of dollars into their institutions

Yet, I have noticed that some in the community college world have resisted the new attention. An emphasis on community colleges successfully educating more students requires at least tacitly acknowledging the areas where community colleges fall short of their mission, where they could do more to ensure that students can succeed. After being marginalized for so long, community college leaders understandably feel uncomfortable—vulnerable even—about this scrutiny. Hence there has been a certain ambivalence among community college insiders about the increased attention from policymakers and private funders.

Some among them decry calls for greater accountability, or deny evidence of low completion rates. Spokespeople for this view will challenge foundation representatives, as some did at the recent Association of Community College Trustees meeting, about their focus on improving college graduation. They will argue that not every student is seeking a degree—while not mentioning the degree-seeking students who don’t succeed. They will quibble over denominators, instead of focusing on how to increase the numerator. Sadly, this subset of community college defenders is being just as myopic as those who have ignored them for too long. They are looking at the short-term interests of their colleges (to be seen as successful) instead of the longer-term interest of their students (to be successful).

To be sure, there are valid concerns about the new emphasis on community college completion. Any goal can create perverse incentives. It is true that not every community college student intends to complete a program. Focusing solely on numbers of completions can obscure other issues, such as quality of learning or racial and ethnic gaps. Prioritizing completion rates could present a threat to access if colleges pursue them by excluding poorly prepared students. It is important to consider such admonitions about the completion goal in order to ensure that any new strategies are well designed to support increased learning, not just to churn out more degrees or curtail access. But none is an argument against efforts to ensure that more community college students can succeed.

I am increasingly encouraged, however, by the growing number of community college leaders who, while acknowledging these cautions, are determined to ensure that the scrutiny yields benefits for their colleges and, most importantly, their students. Being ignored condemned them and their students to a fate even worse than scrutiny. Scrutiny isn’t easy, but it offers an opportunity for discovery and change.

Instead of attacking those who point out areas for improvement, these wise community college leaders are taking up the challenge, working with their colleagues to move beyond ambivalence and defensiveness. Instead of focusing narrowly on seeking more money before any reforms are made, these leaders are pursuing a both/and approach: They are vigorously making the case for more resources while not waiting for those resources to be fully delivered. They are starting the hard job of orienting their institutions to provide better opportunities. This is not easy, because even before the current budget crisis that has hit most of the country, community colleges in many states were underfunded. But these forward-looking leaders are realizing that the underfunding cannot justify waiting to do better by students.

“The unmistakable fact is that we must improve our public higher education system in fundamental ways,” wrote Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, to all 140-some of his fellow presidents and chancellors in California. Oakley was writing in response to a research study on transfer, exhorting his colleagues to take its lessons seriously, rather than dismiss the message as a “red herring.”

“As a former Hispanic transfer student, I empathize with the students…and the barriers they must overcome,” Oakley wrote. “We must recognize that to date we have not been successful in providing ‘real’ opportunities for our underrepresented populations as well as our economically disadvantaged Californians. I do not suggest that my assertion is our fault, but I do suggest that we have a responsibility to improve it. The state of California must make a greater investment in our efforts. However, it is also true that we should not wait for others to change, and [should] do everything we can to make our system more navigable, focused on successful completion, and consistent across all of our 110 colleges. We should also continue to work with our K–12 and public higher education partners to create clear pathways for our students. This is a true systemic problem that affects thousands of students every year, regardless of the state of the economy.”

As a participant in the California Benchmarking Project with the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education, Long Beach City College began several years ago analyzing its student outcomes data, looking especially at equity gaps. In particular, they focused on barriers faced by students looking to transfer to four-year universities, and how the college’s transfer center could better assist them. Even though the results weren’t perfect, the college’s leadership had the courage to be transparent about them, sharing them with their trustees and in several published reports.

Sanford “Sandy” Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Florida, also exemplifies the new generation of student-success-minded leaders. His college began the hard work of improving completion rates long before that came into vogue, and even before joining the Achieving the Dream initiative. At a community college conference last year, after about a decade of such work, Shugart revealed data showing that his institution had simultaneously improved student success rates while narrowing gaps. As of last year, Valencia eliminated achievement gaps in five of the six courses the college had targeted. Fall to spring retention hit 86 percent, and was even higher for African American students.

Shugart confessed that even he was surprised. “I have been a secret skeptic,” Shugart told the audience at the conference. “Deep down inside, I had doubts that we could move the needle. Now I’ve got hope like I’ve never had before that the vision of equity can be achieved in the American community college movement.”

What was refreshing and insightful about Shugart’s approach is that he did not just run through a litany of “best practices”—though Valencia has adopted many practices with evidence of effectiveness. The real key to Valencia’s success? “We changed the way we think,” Shugart said. “Everything else is details after that. Our job now isn’t to find out who’s college material and who’s not. Now everything raises a question: I wonder what the right conditions are for this person’s learning. The college is what the students experience. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s not the catalog, it’s not the buildings, it’s not the curriculum, it’s not the budget, it’s not even us, as important as we all are.”

Oakley, Shugart, and the growing ranks of a bold new cadre of community college leaders, are showing the way, ensuring that policymakers can no longer despair the lack of models and solutions that work for students. Because of them, those looking for proof that colleges can move the needle will not come up short-handed. There is a clear message in their work: Ensuring that more students can complete college entails an intense focus on students, their needs, their successes and their failures.

As Valencia and others are showing, changing the way community colleges think about their students is the first step toward changing the way we all think about community colleges.


As a senior project director at WestEd, Pamela Burdman leads research and outreach projects focused on improving postsecondary readiness and attainment. She previously served as a Hewlett Foundation program officer and as a higher education reporter.

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National CrossTalk December 2009

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