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So Long, ‘Community Colleges’?

Several years ago, I began noticing that a number of two-year colleges around the country were dropping the word “community” from their name, the most notable perhaps being Miami-Dade. (My own institution was once known as DeKalb Community College, although I didn’t work here at the time). That observation made me wonder if, for some, the term “community college” had taken on a negative connotation, just as “junior college” did back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Now I see that it may not be just the terminology that has fallen out of fashion, but the very fact of being a two-year college. In several states — including my own and neighboring Florida — two-year colleges are rushing to add bachelor’s degree programs and, thus, become, on a small scale at least, four-year institutions. Again, I have to place my own college squarely on that list.

In our case the decision to offer a couple of four-year degrees seems both prudent and reasonable — prudent because there were compelling political and budgetary reasons for us to make the move and reasonable because the two degrees we’re now offering, in sign-language interpreting and health informatics, are both natural extensions of things we were already doing well. Our sign-language program is one of the best in the country, while our health-sciences programs, like nursing and dental hygiene, have long been noted for their excellence. Moreover, both new degrees meet specific local needs, filling niches that weren’t previously being filled.

I’m sure other two-year colleges that have added four-year degrees can make similar arguments for their decisions. But I can’t help wondering if, in their push to become bigger and better, many of America’s finest community colleges may have lost some of their identity, some part of what made them unique.

As four-year institutions, will our colleges still be as agile and responsive to their local communities? Will we continue to keep our doors open for students who might not otherwise have access to higher education? Will we remain inexpensive yet high-quality alternatives to the regional universities? Or will we merely, over time, morph into regional universities?

In short, can you have a four-year community college? Or is this the beginning of the end of the community-college movement — and if so, what will become of all of those tens of thousands of community-college students?

I confess that I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. All I have at this point is a faint sense of unease. But I’m certainly interested to know what other community-college faculty members and administrators think about this trend, especially in parts of the country where it’s really picking up steam.

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