If this country is to achieve its postsecondary attainment goals and bring many more Americans to a bright future, community colleges will bear much of the responsibility.
Community colleges are the cornerstone of American higher education. These institutions enroll nearly half of all college students and a majority of African American and Latino/a students, as well as substantial numbers of low-income, first-generation, and older students.
Community colleges have a critical role to play in addressing this country’s greatest challenges: stagnant family incomes, disparities in income and wealth, and political polarization.
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Our society places immense burdens on community colleges. These institutions are responsible for:
- Workforce development
- Human capital formation
- Local and regional economic development
- Technical and vocational training
- Community service
As a lower-cost alternative to four-year colleges and universities, community colleges are both a gateway into higher education and, in many instances, an alternative to four-year institutions.
But despite their pivotal place in the higher education ecosystem, community colleges lack respect and adequate funding. Too often, these institutions are subject to condescension, their critical role in remediation and vocational training belittled. Their success rate – in terms of transfer and graduation rates and post-graduation salaries – is also subject to harsh criticism.
But as an affordable, accessible, learning- and skills-centered option, especially for non-traditional students, community colleges deserve much more support, funding, and respect than they currently receive.
Of course, community colleges face many emerging challenges. These include enrollments that fluctuate sharply according to the business cycle; the need to keep costs and tuition and fees low; competition from other providers of training and credentials, including relatively low-cost online “competency-based” providers; heightened demands for accountability in terms of graduation and transfer rates, licensure pass rates, and work performance following program completion. Meanwhile, their responsibilities are expanding, as these institutions must partner much more closely with K-12 school districts, four-year institutions, and local industry.
A number of ideas have been advanced to improve community colleges’ outcomes. Terry U. O’Banion’s 13 Ideas that Are Transforming the Community College World offers a succinct introduction to many possible innovations. Here are ten innovations that have been advanced:
1.Co-enrollment in a Four-Year Institution.
Roughly 80 percent of community college students hope to transfer to a four-year institution. For many reasons, including the opportunity cost of continuing advanced education, most never do. Co-enrollment in a four-year college or university offers a way to increase the transfer rate and make the transition more seamless.
2. Fields of Study Curricula
These pathways, which tightly align community college and four-year college curricula, address a major challenge: The loss of credits when students transfer. Articulation agreements have proven insufficient, since actual credits are often awarded by individual departments or colleges. To be successful, it is essential that departments and individual faculty members work closely together to ensure that the courses’ learning outcomes are comparable and that credits transfer without hitches.
3. Meta Majors
Meta Majors introduce students to broad fields of study and open windows into possible jobs. Meta Majors can help students identify potential majors and career paths at an early stage in their college career, making it less likely that students will change majors later at great expense in terms of money and time.
4. Structured Pathways
These degree paths that are more coherent, synergistic, and carefully sequenced than traditional majors. By reducing students’ options, guided pathways help ensure that students remain on track to a degree. At their best, such pathways are interdisciplinary, including relevant courses from other fields that are essential to a student’s education. A notable example involves mathematics courses tailored to a particular degree track.
5. Stackable Credentials
Stackable credentials offer a way to ensure that students who might stop out acquire a certificate or certification with genuine value in the job market.
6. Applied Bachelor Degrees
Florida is among the most advanced in offering bachelor’s degrees in fields that four-year institutions eschew, such as dental hygiene, emergency management, health services administration, and radiology and imagining sciences. One can think of many areas where it might make sense for a community college to offer applied bachelor’s degrees, for example, in automobile technologies, computer-aided design and drafting, dietetics, early childhood education, flood abatement and environmental management, hospitalities studies, information systems, logistics, procurement, and project management, physical and occupational therapy, public safety and administration, and web design and development.
7. Bridging the Divide between Vocational and Academic Education
Currently, community colleges’ dual responsibilities – to provide vocational and technical training and lay the foundation for a bachelor’s degree – co-exist uneasily. Might it not make sense to see these responsibilities as symbiotic, ensuring that many more students who graduate or transfer from a community college already possess a marketable skill validated with a credential? Blurring the divide between the vocational and the academic might also serve another valuable function: Helping students better understand their career options.
8. Reimagining Remediation
Remediation is among community colleges’ most important responsibilities, but too often remedial courses become a dead-end, since students’ enrolled in these courses fail to earn college credit and gradually exhaust their financial aid. Co-requisite courses – which combine a credit course and a remedial section – have been offered as a possible solution, but other possibilities exist. These include diagnostics to pinpoint specific areas that require remediation; software to build skills in crucial areas; and intensive boot camps that focus on a specific challenge.
9. One-Stop, Wrap-Around Support
At community colleges, academic and non-academic support cannot be confined to a discrete group of “at-risk” students. Rather, such support must be provided cost-effectively at scale. Such support also needs to be proactive, since, in many instances, students will stop out rather than seek the help that they need. Support, in short, needs to be a team effort, combining faculty, student service specialists, and peer mentors. Career services, disability services, financial aid counseling, tutoring, and writing support need to be integrated into the academic experience.
10. Alternate Scheduling and Delivery Modes
In addition to the more traditional evening and weekend courses, alternate modes include hybrid courses, low-residency courses, online courses supplemented with face-to-face structure and support at a satellite or “store front” campus coupled with deployment of life and academic coaches.
Given the escalating cost of a four-year degree and the shift in demographics that is increasing the number of low-income and non-traditional students, there is every reason to think that community colleges will occupy an increasingly important place in post-secondary education.
Condescension must end and be replaced by the view that two-year and four-year institutions as partners engaged in a common enterprise.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.