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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