Diverse Students Are Going Hungry at the Cafeteria Curriculum

Terry O'Banion

Terry O’BanionTerry O’BanionCommunity college students who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are first generation, and who have not been successful in high school are starving to death trying to find educational sustenance at the cafeteria curriculum.

Tom Bailey and his colleagues at the Community College Research Center in their seminal work, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, identified the “cafeteria curriculum” as a major barrier to student success noting “…The general studies curriculum is perhaps the most confusing and complex program for students to navigate.” Almost every community college in the nation lists a general education or core curriculum in the catalog following this statement: “The Core Curriculum is a set of courses that provides the knowledge, skills, and educational experiences needed to succeed in higher education.” Here are several examples of core curricula:

In a California community college, the catalog includes four different sets of requirements for general education degrees — already confusing for students. In the college’s general education requirements of 6 courses students must choose from among 217 different courses (one course from 46 in natural sciences, one from 47 in social and behavioral sciences, one from 79 in art, humanities, and culture, etc.).

In an Ohio community college, students must choose from 46 different courses in the arts and humanities to meet a three-course general education requirement, from 36 courses in the social sciences, and from 48 in math and science.

In a Texas community college, students are required to select five courses from among 78 courses in 3 different categories to meet general education requirements.

The curriculum is supposed to be the collective wisdom and expertise of the faculty about what is important for students to learn. Unfortunately, faculty have created jungles of courses through which students cannot navigate; and advisors cannot possibly guide students through these pathways of fractured, incoherent, programs that lack integrity. The cafeteria curriculum is ubiquitous in the nation’s community colleges as a structural barrier to success for all students, but for diverse students it is especially pernicious in its effect—a Maginot Line they seldom breach.

An essential education

For those college leaders considering curricular revision or reform, there is a new curricular paradigm described in detail by the author in a monograph, Bread and Roses: Helping Students Make a Good Living and Live a Good Life, published by the League for Innovation. The new paradigm is an attempt to create a framework for an integrated curriculum while helping to resolve the historical divide between liberal education and workforce education. An “essential education” is defined as an integrated core of learning that includes and connects the key components from liberal education and workforce education to ensure that a student is equipped to earn a good living and live a good life. It is a quality education essential to all students. An essential education is what some advocates have identified as a liberal career education or a practical liberal education.

And there are plenty of clues to the nature of that curriculum. Advocates of liberal education and of workforce education have been moving closer and closer to a curriculum that unifies their key missions. Most advocates from both sides will agree that all students need skills and knowledge in problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, and communication—cross cutting skills necessary for students who want to succeed in higher education and in life. They are the “soft skills” that should become the hardcore of a new essential education. The next step is a brief leap to creating a core curriculum of these four key skills. Four three-hour credit courses as stand-alone courses or combined in a twelve-credit learning community is one model of an integrated curriculum. Some colleges will add core courses in diversity, global awareness, and information technology.

Core courses are more manageable for everyone, and they are easier to explain to students. If faculty from liberal education and from workforce education can agree on the common elements of core courses and construct content and teaching strategies that apply to the courses, we stand a good chance of creating an integrated curriculum that will help our students make a good living and live a good life.

A core curriculum of essential courses required by the college takes the guesswork out of the hands of students and advisors about what the student should take in his or her first term or first year. It eliminates the confusion of having to make choices among hundreds of courses. A core curriculum benefits all students, but the benefits for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, first-generation students, and students who have not been successful in high school will be particularly profound and substantive; it will be life-changing.    

Dr. Terry O’Banion serves as senior professor of practice, Kansas State University, and is president emeritus, League for Innovation in the Community College.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.