August 2011


Community Colleges in America are well on their way to being institutions that provide no real “college” education at all. Thus insuring that low and middle income students who have no choice but to attend community colleges, will have an education that increasingly below the standard of four year college education.

My friends who teach in community colleges acknowledge that already their courses really do not measure up to those at four year colleges. These faculty know that they simply cannot get low income students who work full-time jobs, are married, have small children, and who lack adequate college preparation (many of whom have never read a single book cover to cover), to read the same amount or level of material, such as the primary sources and research articles typically assigned to four year college and university students.

But in recent years things are getting worse, the gap in what community college students and those in four year institutions learn has gotten wider, and current trends in developmental and technical education threaten to expand the divide to a chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon.

The emphasis in Community Colleges is on developmental education (what we used to call “remedial” before that became politically suspect) and on technical education or narrow job training. In other words, Community Colleges, rather than providing the first two years of a college education, are doing the things that American secondary schools no longer are able to accomplish.

Across the nation, Community Colleges have seen the state tax money available to them decline, if not in absolute terms, certainly in terms relative to the cost of the education they provide. As a result many community colleges, like four year colleges, have raised tuition rates, and instituted a variety of cost saving measures to make up for lost funds, as well as amping up efforts to attract grant and corporate money.

In true political contrarian fashion, states and regional accrediting bodies have increased demands for accountability at the same time that they have decreased overall state tax support for community colleges. The demand for accountability focuses on three things – assessment of learning, increasing retention and graduation rates and the employment of students exiting community colleges.

Rising tuition costs and pressures to improve retention and post-degree employment, push Community Colleges to bow to the short-term, often short-sighted, pragmatic goals of their “customers” – the potential college students and their parents (who rarely have college educations themselves). Colleges scramble to come up with new programs to meet current, localized job demand, with little thought to long range trends or life time career paths.

As a result community colleges crank out graduates that have practical skills but no liberal educational content behind those skills. As a result occupational graduates in fields like real-time closed captioning where the graduates can type as a fast as news anchors can talk, but lack a liberal education with the humorous result that the ancient runner “Pheidippides” turns into “three fip disease” during Olympic coverage, and a commentators view that British youth’s rioting as “inchoate” (August 12, 2011) turns into rioting “in Kuwait”!!

In doing so, they shift resources (classroom space, computer labs, faculty lines, technology funds) away from traditional college instruction and to meeting the needs of technical programs. Classes like literature, mathematics, history, communications, psychology, and political science can share the use of standard classrooms, most of the allied health professions and technical fields require dedicated classroom and laboratory space, removing those facilities from the pool shared by all the other regular college courses.

To meet the stringent demands of national accrediting bodies in allied health and technical fields, colleges must staff these programs (new or old) with a core of full-time faculty. There are no such accrediting bodies to make sure that the faculty teaching history, communications, or college math, are up-to-date in their fields, or certified (once they earn the minimum graduate hours), and certainly no oversight bodies to require that courses in history and literature are taught by full-time faculty rather than part-timers and adjuncts. So full-time faculty lines shift to the allied health and technical fields, while instructional needs in traditional college liberal arts and even basic sciences classes are more and more often taught by a growing army of temporary and part-time instructors.

Pressures for both accountability and the need for tuition dollars have placed more emphasis than ever on retaining students, and the research is very clear, the students most at risk for failure and dropping out are those that come to college under-prepared – the students needing multiple developmental/remedial classes. Colleges are motivated to retain developmental students, and the recent flood of grant funding for improving and experimenting with developmental education (see previous post), has placed developmental education at the top of community colleges agendas.

Good, thoughtful, educators and liberals who care about inequality in the schools like developmental education. On its face, developmental/remedial education is an opportunity to reverse educational inequalities, to provide the background and support that able but ill prepared students need to “make it” educationally. If remediation were happening in high schools, if high schools all over the country were seriously addressing the college readiness of all their students, than I would applaud that unreservedly. However, as needed as developmental education is, the attention and dollars available to community colleges for it, are like allied health and technical fields pushing real college instruction to the side lines.

Whole computer labs get removed from use by statistics classes, computer science classes, political science classes, physics classes, etc. and become dedicated laboratories in which developmental math and reading students can spend their days learning the things they should have received in high school. Technology and instructional money comes from grants, but when grants run out, colleges are heavily pressured to continue funding for developmental needs, and faculty lines are shifted from traditional college level classes where adjuncts can fill in the gaps to developmental instruction.

In the quest to retain developmental students, subtle shifts in course designations begin to take place. New “college” credit bearing courses are invented to provide ways for developmental students to work towards graduation requirements while struggling to bring their skills up to college level, and instructors in traditional college classes are pressured to become part-time developmental instructors by adding “supplemental instruction” to their college courses and allow marginal students in before they are able to meet testing guidelines.

Thus the gap between the quality and content of the community college education drifts further and further below that of the four year college or university.

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Only half of students who receive a high school diploma in the United States are academically prepared for post secondary education. A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam confirms this; half of the students were ready for college-level reading assignments in core subjects like math, history, science, and English. Yet two-thirds of high school graduates head to post-secondary institutions to continue their education.

Most four year colleges and universities deny admittance to students who do not attain college level readiness as evidenced by tests like the ACT and the SAT. So those students unprepared for college, but desiring a college education any way, head for the nations community colleges where all comers (with a high school diploma or GED) are welcome. Ill-prepared students feel the need for a college degree because American businesses rely on formal educational credentials to narrow their applicant pool, and because bottom-line oriented businesses have decided that they no longer want to waste their resources with on-the-job training, more and more occupational specific training has been pushed to community colleges. More and more blue-collar, construction, manufacturing and even service industry jobs are requiring community college certification as a minimum occupational entrance requirement.

Consequently community colleges are flooded with students lacking basic reading, writing and mathematical skills – students that require developmental (what we used to call “remedial”) education in multiple areas.

The failure of American high schools to prepare students, to actually educate students in the basic skills and knowledge expected of a high school graduate much less of a college entrant, is widely recognized in the United States. In recent years a deluge of money, from government agencies, corporations, and charitable foundations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), has been directed to programs to better provide developmental/remedial education.

One might think that this flood of funding to provide students with high school level skills and knowledge would go to high schools. This is after all high school topics that students are failing to master. But that is not where the money is going. Instead, the grant funding is sloshing into the doors of Adult Education programs and especially community colleges. So that students, their families and society end up paying twice (taxes for high schools and taxes and tuition for community colleges) to education students to the level of a high school diploma. [See “Paying Double: Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation”]

The key question is why? Why does the funding go to community colleges and adult education programs instead of high schools. The answer, I believe, is quite simple. It is that in the United States, high schools, like all public education is locally controlled by local political entities, and therefore subject to all the abuses and corruption of local politics. Local schools may be constrained to hire only teachers with a college degree and a teaching certificate, but from the pool of all possibles it is the rare locality that doesn’t place kinship, friendship and political patronage above skills, knowledge and even subject matter certification when hiring teachers.

There are outstanding elementary and secondary schools in the United States – in communities made up of upper middle class families, where parents are all college educated and very knowledgeable of what is required for their own children to enter the nations top colleges and universities. Local control works in these communities to insure high quality secondary education – at least for those in the college preparatory tracks of the school. But in most of the country, high school education is in the control of an electorate and their political representatives who care more about the quality of their athletic fields and protecting their babies from being infected by heretical ideas like evolution, than they do for actual education.

I’ve personally known school boards and many working class and lower middle class parents, who want their children to have access to jobs, but are quite clear that they don’t want those children to be contaminated by education. They want degrees without all that troublesome knowledge.

The funders of developmental/remedial education know this about American secondary education. They know that the schools that would actually use funding to raise the skill and knowledge level of students don’t really need the funds, and that the schools that need the funds won’t be able to use them appropriately. So they turn to community colleges, which are generally governed by state-wide bodies and accountable to regional accrediting agencies, and are therefore more likely to actually provide the needed developmental/remedial education. Moreover, high schools are motivated to get rid of poor students students quickly, while colleges who receive tuition payments, are motivated to hang on to poor students as long as the possibly can.

I’ve noticed that almost all the traffic to this blog comes from people looking for the terms “permafrost,” “Chersky,” or “Russia” — I wonder why that is? Would any visitors like to explain this?