The 'Middle of the End' for Community Colleges?

Turning our two-year colleges into regional four-year institutions is a dangerous trend

WPA Photograph Collection, Louisiana Division New Orleans Public Library, #17.66 1

February 09, 2015

Recently, I was a guest on an Ohio radio program, along with Diane Walleser, vice president for enrollment management at Columbus State Community College. For about an hour, we talked about community colleges and answered questions from the host and quite a few callers.

Except that we didn’t really answer many questions from callers, because most of the people who called in did so to sing the praises of community colleges in general and Columbus State in particular. I lost track of how many success stories I heard from people who said the college had met their needs in ways other institutions either couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I kept thinking, "Yes, this is what community colleges are all about. I just hope it doesn’t all go away."

And yet, I fear that’s where we’re headed. I’m afraid that, by the time we’re done debating the merits and feasibility of President Obama’s "free community college" proposal, the point will be moot, because community colleges as we know them won’t exist anymore.

Before I expand on that last point, let me take a few moments to explain exactly what I mean by "community colleges." A lot of people, including myself, tend to use the terms "community college" and "two-year college" interchangeably, but there are actually several types of two-year institutions. Some, like the one where I teach, focus primarily on transfer—that is, providing the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. Others offer mostly two-year technical degrees, designed to prepare students to enter the work force directly.

Finally, there are "comprehensive community colleges," where both functions—transfer and technical programs—co-exist on the same campus and students are able to move freely between them. That is a uniquely American model, as it allows students to decide, relatively late in the educational process, what they want to do with their lives. In many developed nations, students are placed early on—in some cases, by sixth grade—into either the university track or the vocational path, based on grades, standardized test scores, and other measures. And in their designated track they tend to stay, regardless of how their intellectual abilities or personal goals might change later in life.

That’s not the case in this country, at least not yet. And one of the main reasons it isn’t—one of the main reasons that your career isn’t necessarily determined by your academic performance in middle school—is our community-college system. That system is the definition of "second chance," or perhaps even your first opportunity to figure out what your dream is.

That was the story we heard on the radio from at least a dozen callers—and also from my fellow guest, who confided that she, too, was one of those people: a disinterested student who had discovered, at a two-year college, a love of learning that eventually led her to earn a doctorate. And that’s exactly the narrative I’m afraid could soon disappear from our national dialogue. Why? Aren’t community colleges doing better than ever right now, basking in the spotlight suddenly switched on by the president’s proposal? Maybe. But let’s ignore the sound bites and look at the national trend.

Here in the South, where I live, states like Florida and Georgia have been moving away from the comprehensive-community-college model for nearly a decade. In those states, former community colleges are either morphing into de facto four-year institutions (known as "state colleges") or, like my own campus, being absorbed by neighboring universities.

Even more eye-opening, perhaps, and certainly more indicative of a nationwide trend, is the fact that the California Legislature recently voted to allow some of that state’s community colleges to offer four-year degrees. When I first saw that news, I remarked to a colleague, a transplant from the Bay Area, that this might be the beginning of the end for community colleges.

"No," he responded. "It’s the middle of the end. You know what they say: As California goes, so goes the nation."

I’m sure some of you are probably wondering, "But isn’t it a good thing for community colleges to offer four-year degrees? Doesn’t that serve more students?" Perhaps you’re right, and my fears will be unfounded. But here is what I see happening:

As community colleges begin offering more four-year degrees, they will of course have to hire more Ph.D.’s, rather than relying primarily on master’s-prepared faculty members, as has traditionally been the case. That may be a boost to the Ph.D. job market, and it may or may not improve student learning, but it will undoubtedly cost the colleges more money, since Ph.D.’s typically come in higher on the pay scale.

Once the culture of community colleges has changed sufficiently, with a large percentage of the faculty holding research degrees, the administrators will probably feel some pressure to increase standards for tenure and promotion, requiring faculty to do some research and publishing—something faculty members at most community colleges are not required to do now. That will almost certainly necessitate a reduction in teaching load, perhaps to four courses a semester rather than the traditional five.

To some, that might seem like a positive development. But again, there’s no doubt it would cost more money and probably lead to even greater use of adjunct faculty.

In addition, colleges that offer four-year degrees will have to spend more on things like facilities, IT infrastructure, and library materials. The end result of all those added expenses will inevitably be that tuition will go up, and sharply. That would negate what has long been one of the main advantages for students attending a community college: affordability.

And what is the likelihood that those two-year colleges now offering four-year degrees will continue an open-door admissions policy? I suspect that, over time, they will gradually raise admissions standards to the point where many of the students they were originally created to serve can no longer get in, even if they can afford to attend.

In short, those campuses will no longer be community colleges. They will be small (or, in many cases, not-so-small) regional four-year institutions. There’s nothing wrong with being a regional four-year institution; I would just submit that we already have plenty of those. That particular niche in our higher-education system is already quite adequately filled. What we really need are institutions that provide access to higher education for students who might not have it otherwise. And that is precisely what we will be losing in this bargain.

Assuming I’m right, the next obvious question is: Why is this happening? Four reasons occur to me immediately:

  • Economics (of course). With educational budgets stretched to the breaking point in many states, college leaders are understandably looking for ways to improve their bottom lines. In most states four-year institutions are better funded than two-year colleges, so an obvious way for a two-year campus to move up a few places in the line for state appropriations is to become, to some extent, a four-year campus. That is certainly what has happened in both Florida and Georgia, and I suspect it’s what’s happening in California, as well.
  • State politics. States are under pressue to get the most bang for the public buck, and community colleges are not seen as doing that. Instead, with their emphasis on remedial education and comparatively low graduation rates, these colleges are often perceived as drains on the state budget.
  • The Complete College America agenda. As I’ve noted in a previous column, there are legitimate reasons for low graduation rates at two-year colleges: open-door admissions, students who transfer without graduating, dual enrollment, and transient students. But policy makers don’t want to hear about any of that. They just want certain statistical results, and if a community college can’t produce those results, then one solution is to turn that campus into something else—namely, a four-year college.
  • Careerist college presidents. Many presidents are on board with the idea of turning the two-year college they lead into a four-year college. In many cases, they are the ones pushing the agenda, whether for economic or personal reasons. What some of us faculty members see as dangerous mission creep represents to them the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Whatever the cause, I predict that the next decade will see the acceleration of this trend toward offering more and more four-year degrees on two-year campuses and, thus, to the gradual disappearance of comprehensive community colleges. Without them, students will have fewer choices and fewer chances to pursue their dreams. And our communities and our nation—not to mention the occasional public radio talk-show host—will be poorer for the loss.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.