What About Community Colleges?

Brian Taylor

January 15, 2013

For all of its holiday cheer, December 2012 also brought a fair amount of doom and gloom. We had the fiscal cliff, the gun-control debate, the Mayan calendar hysteria. And in higher education (speaking of hysteria), we were treated to dire predictions regarding "The End of the University as We Know It," as Nathan Harden put it in The American Interest.

Largely missing from the discussion of catastrophic changes facing academe is any mention of how community colleges might fare. Harden argues that residential campuses will basically cease to exist over the next few decades—except, perhaps, at elite universities—replaced by MOOCs and other technology-driven forms of mass learning. But he says very little about two-year colleges, except to suggest, briefly, that they, too, could "outsource many of their courses via MOOCs."

(Please note that, for the purposes of this essay, I will use the terms "community college" and "two-year college" more or less interchangeably. But what I'm really talking about is what has come to be known as the "access institution," where students can earn credit toward transfer to a university or can complete two-year degrees or certificates that will enable them to enter the work force. Most of these institutions are still two-year colleges, although many have dropped the word "community" from their name, and some even offer bachelor's degrees.)

As someone who works in higher education, I must admit that predictions like Harden's always make me a little nervous. This is my livelihood we're talking about, after all. But as a community-college professor, I am reassured by the fact that two-year institutions occupy a unique place in the academic universe, one that might not be filled as easily as some imagine. A couple of years ago, in a speech to faculty members and students at my campus, a visiting dignitary stated that "if Georgia Perimeter College did not exist, someone would have to invent it." I'd like to borrow that phrase and apply it here more broadly to community colleges in general: If they didn't exist, someone would have to invent them.

Specifically, I see five areas in which community colleges excel, and which make it unlikely that they will be disappearing anytime soon:

Work-force development and training. It's true that I have railed in these pages against the tendency among politicians and other decision-makers to view two-year colleges as merely engines for work-force development, ignoring the fact that we also provide a liberal-arts education for nearly half of the college-going population.

But community colleges are, indeed, a powerful engine for work-force development, delivering technical training (and retraining) for thousands of students, enabling them to earn a decent living, and powering the economy in many parts of the nation.

That is an incredibly important function, one that cannot easily be replaced by MOOCs or any other form of mass education on the horizon. Most technical training is by nature hands-on, requiring extensive facilities and on-site instructors. (Honestly, would you want to have your hair cut by someone who learned how to do it by watching the equivalent of YouTube videos?) Many companies do not have their own training facilities and count on local community colleges to provide skilled workers. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Remedial education. A recent national report, "Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education," said: "Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community-college students take at least one remedial course."

There is much debate in that document and elsewhere over how many of those students actually belong in remedial courses, but the fact remains that large numbers of students graduating from American high schools (or not graduating, as the case may be) need some sort of remediation. Given the country's shifting demographics and the financial difficulties faced by most school systems, that trend, too, seems unlikely to change—except, perhaps, to get worse.

Many unprepared students will continue pursuing higher education to chase the American dream. And most of them will end up at two-year colleges, because they don't have the grades and test scores to get into four-year colleges, and because—let's face it—two-year institutions are about the only ones actively recruiting remedial students these days. Most four-year colleges have basically given up on them, unless they happen to be athletes.

Even if many institutions end up following the recommendations outlined in "Core Principles"—essentially, that most students who test into remedial courses should be placed instead into college-level courses with "additional support"—that's merely another (if possibly more effective) form of remediation. And once again, community colleges are uniquely structured to provide the kind of intensive, personalized support such students need.

Online education. To paraphrase an ad for a fast-food chain, community colleges didn't invent online education; we just made it better.

The fact is, other than for-profit institutions, no other sector of higher education has embraced online learning the way community colleges have. Our motives might not always have been the purest, but we have made a significant commitment to developing our online infrastructure, training online instructors, and recruiting online students. For more than a decade, while our four-year counterparts have dithered over whether to offer this, that, or any course online, community colleges have pushed to provide more and more online options for more and more students.

The result is that we have become remarkably adept at teaching online. More important, we have figured out how to make online courses as personal as possible, which seems to be the key for the vast majority of students. Studies (such as this one) show consistently that one of the main reasons students come to community colleges in the first place is that we offer smaller classes where the instructors know them by name. I believe that holds true for online as well as for face-to-face.

As I've read the comments following articles like "Jump Off the Coursera Bandwagon" and "The False Promise of the Education Revolution" in The Chronicle, one thing I've noticed about MOOCs and other such "innovations" is that they seem to appeal mostly to students who are already well educated.

Often those students are either professionals seeking to gain additional expertise in their fields or people looking to expand their intellectual horizons—like the engineer who takes an advanced poetry course just because she likes poetry and didn't have an opportunity to pursue that interest in college.

In other words, these are highly motivated, extremely self-directed learners. But the vast majority of undergraduates who register for online classes are not either of those things—especially in required core courses they don't really want to take. That's why online faculty members at community colleges have worked so hard for years to make their courses as student-friendly as possible.

It may be true, as prognosticators claim, that more and more students will be taking courses online. But if so, I believe most of them will seek out the smaller "classrooms" and more personalized online experience offered by community colleges, rather than the faceless crowds of MOOCs.

Classroom teaching. One of the ideas behind the MOOC movement, as I understand it, is that students are better off taking a course from a famous professor at Stanford or MIT than from some no-name instructor (like me).

That reasoning has a couple of obvious flaws. One is that being well known in a particular field doesn't necessarily make someone a great teacher. And the inverse is also true: There are thousands of great college teachers laboring away out there in relative obscurity. Such teachers can be found disproportionately at community colleges.

While "great teaching" may be difficult to quantify, anecdotally speaking, I spent many years as a department chair reviewing teacher evaluations. I was continually struck by how well almost every member of my department fared, and even more so by the students' comments—especially those who had transferred in from four-year institutions and seemed genuinely shocked at the high quality of instruction they found on our campus.

Why is that? Because teaching is what we do. It's what we care most about. It's what we take pride in. When we hire new faculty members, we're looking for the best teachers we can find—not the best researchers or the biggest names. Most of our faculty members have a great deal of teaching experience, because, for better or for worse, we rarely hire people who don't.

Sure, if you love Shakespeare, it might be wonderful to take a course from a famous Shakespearean scholar at one of the world's great universities, even if "taking the course" simply means watching videos on your computer. But all of those students who don't love literature—or biology, or calculus, or whatever—are just looking for a teacher who can help them learn the material and get through the course. And an increasing number of them are looking for those teachers at community colleges.

Economic value. The main reason community colleges will remain viable educational options for many years to come is that our institutions are such a great value. In my state, tuition and fees for a full-time student at a two-year college are about a third of what students pay at one of the state's large research institutions, and about half of what they pay at the smaller, regional universities. Many of our students also live at home, which reduces their expenses even more.

Pair that kind of savings in a difficult economy with the fact that students can transfer their credits directly to a university, and it's easy to see why two-year colleges are now enrolling many students who, a decade ago, might have gone off to a regional or even flagship university.

Sure, prestige is an issue, as is peer pressure at the high-school level. It's no fun to admit you are "going to the community college" when everyone else is opening acceptance letters from well-known universities. But as one student told me recently, echoing many of his peers, "So what if I attend GPC for a couple of years before transferring to UGA? When I get my bachelor's degree, my diploma will still just say 'The University of Georgia.'"

As long as students are looking for inexpensive courses that transfer easily, with excellent teaching, a supportive environment, and a variety of options—both online and face-to-face—community colleges will continue to thrive. And if they ever, for any reason, cease to exist, somebody will just have to invent them all over again.

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 "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.