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Not Your Father’s Community College

Not Your Father’s Community College
New programs, increased visibility boost two-year institutions’ appeal

By Lydia Lum

Public perception of community colleges has improved so much in the past two decades that they are no longer regarded as higher education’s last resort. Many two-year schools have increased the number and visibility of honors programs. They have signed deals with many four-year universities, even Ivy League institutions, giving community-college graduates scholarships and entry into those schools.
The first graduating class of Miami Dade College’s honors program last year probably could have gone to any university anywhere, with SAT scores of 1200 and high school GPAs of at least 3.7. After earning associate’s degrees, their destinations included Amherst, Notre Dame, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, Duke and Howard.
Educators are quick to point out that success stories run throughout community-college innovations. Dual-credit programs, born many years ago but mushrooming within the last decade, have produced graduates who might not otherwise have stepped foot into the colleges. Allowing high schoolers to enroll in college concurrently, the programs are aimed at introducing them to college-level work, while theoretically trimming state educational expenses because students’ educational careers are shortened. Houston Community College System Chancellor Dr. Bruce Leslie cites a Black student who earned her associate’s degree a week before earning her high school diploma, with plans of transferring to the University of Houston and eventually, Baylor Medical School. She skipped her HCC commencement ceremony because it coincided with a student trip to China, but her mom, who showed up anyway, quoted her as saying “all this was made possible because of HCC and the chance to start college early,” Leslie says.  
Dr. Janis Hadley, president of Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, views today’s dual-credit programs and other expansions no differently than the work-force development and training initiatives that two-year colleges introduced years ago.
“The new curriculum at that time was as much a slippery slope then as these issues are now,” says Hadley, also convener of the President’s Roundtable, a group of about 100 Black community college presidents. “We cannot be all things to all people. But our core mission is to offer access to all students, so things that expand those opportunities are good, whether it’s work-force development or academic expansion.” The question is, how much of a good thing is too much?
One of the more controversial moves by community colleges in recent years has resulted in a handful now offering baccalaureate degrees. Miami Dade, one of the most visible and largest two-year schools with 59,000 for-credit students, now gives baccalaureate degrees in special education and secondary math and science education. Officials there plan more baccalaureate programs and have dropped the word “community” from its name to comply with accreditation rules, leading longtime academic observers to call it a “hybrid.” Supporters of the baccalaureate movement praise it as a quick, efficient response to work-force shortages because four-year universities move so slowly. Critics though, contend that the movement unnecessarily duplicates university degree programs and question the quality of instruction. They also question the wisdom of putting resources into baccalaureate programs at a time when many urban, two-year colleges are housed in old facilities needing renovation or even replacement.
Miami Dade’s venture into the baccalaureate realm came after surveys showed that neighboring Broward County, as well as Miami-Dade County, needed several times more teachers annually than were emerging from the region’s four-year schools.
Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), describes himself as “not a big fan” of the baccalaureate movement. “Community colleges are nimble enough to respond to community needs,” he says, “but we already have universities. What about community colleges? If the motivation of a two-year college getting involved with four-year degrees is not of reluctance but of trying to improve its own status as an institution, then it’s wrong. That’s where community colleges can lose sight of their mission.”
Clearly, channeling the baccalaureate movement constructively is only one of the challenges facing two-year colleges.
Housatonic’s Hadley worries about the relatively low numbers of minority Ph.D.s who can be tapped as teachers. Add to that competing offers from prestigious universities and the private sector, along with the fact that a wave of community college faculty, hired during the 1960s boom, is now retiring. “It’s a limited pool of teaching candidates who themselves have only so much experience,” Hadley says. “How do we grow our own so that our students have role models?”  

A Major Portal
Even with their growing popularity, are two-year schools shortchanging educationally and financially disadvantaged students in the process?
Answers aren’t easy, and of course, they vary widely among educators. But because community colleges are such a major portal of entry for Blacks and other minorities into higher education, the question cannot be ignored.   
Dr. Calvin Lowe, president of the historically Black Bowie State University in Maryland, doubts whether community colleges are the best place for Black students to start postsecondary studies. “There isn’t the same feel of an intellectual community there, as at a residential campus,” Lowe says. “It’s simply better for them to start at a four-year campus.” 
And with community colleges “changing so fast, growing so tremendously,” Lowe says, “it’s easy for students to get distracted in an environment where there seems to be everything for everybody, whether it’s people taking tai chi, auto mechanics, English composition or courses for certification.”
Some facts may bear this out. Regardless of ethnicity, students starting at four-year colleges are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years than students starting at community colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
But Dr. Brenda Simmons, president of the National Council of Black American Affairs, doesn’t believe demographic shifts and subsequent program changes at community colleges in recent years have hampered the schools from serving their core students — those with limited higher education options. In fact, the evolution helps disadvantaged students as well as minorities, she says.
“A community college is there to turn on a dime and respond to the needs of that surrounding community,” says Simmons, also executive dean at Florida Community College, North Campus. “There’s no disadvantage for any students, and our flexibility can’t do anything but help people, especially citizens of color.”
And surveys show that community-college students have their share of ambition. Of those who entered a community college during the 1995-96 school year and later transferred to a four-year institution, 80 percent had either earned a bachelor’s degree or were at least still enrolled at the four-year school within six years, according to the NCES. 
The popularity of two-year schools isn’t expected to ebb soon. In 2001, the nation’s 1,833 community colleges enrolled 6.2 million for-credit students while in 1984 they had 4.5 million, according to the Department of Education. In 2001, the most recent year that statistics were available, Blacks made up 12.3 percent of for-credit students, versus 10 percent in 1984. A significant increase in Hispanic enrollment also occurred in that time, jumping from 6 percent to 14.4 percent, mirroring their growing visibility in the general population. But when factoring in non-credit students, which can include those taking courses in English as a second language; leadership skills and wine studies to name a few, the AACC reports that more than 10 million students are enrolled across the country.
Among all undergraduates, 55 percent each of Hispanic and American Indian undergraduates are at community colleges, while 46 percent each of Black and Asian undergraduates attend community colleges. Historically, the open enrollment policies and proximity of community colleges have made them havens for working students; parents; students requiring remedial classes; older people uncomfortable in classrooms of 18-year-olds; low-income students and a host of others who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” student who attends a four-year university right after high school. And with a growing number of U.S. jobs being moved overseas, employment experts and counselors are steering many displaced workers to community colleges for re-training or career makeovers.
But meanwhile, community colleges also have become magnets for those so-called traditional students during the past 20 years, even though their high-school grades and test scores qualify them for universities. Some of them want a close-to-home transition, taking lower-division courses in small community-college classes and avoiding university lecture halls filled with 200 students or more. Others want to wrestle with career choices and decisions of what major to declare in a less expensive setting than a university. Undergraduate enrollment at four-year schools is expected to grow at a faster rate than that at two-year schools for the next decade, according to the NCES. But, budget cuts in many states are driving students to the relatively cheaper community colleges while tuition at four-year schools continues to climb.
During the 2003-04 academic year, full-time undergraduates paid about $500 more than they had the year before, and $850 more than two years earlier. Lawmakers in some states deregulated tuition, sometimes sparking increases in tuition and fees even higher than the national average. For instance, governing boards at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston, each approved increases in tuition and fees of at least 20 percent at those campuses for this fall semester. The three institutions are the largest in Texas and collectively enroll more than 103,000 undergraduates annually.
Elsewhere, state cuts have affected some students personally. In efforts to trim this fall semester’s freshman class from that of a year ago, the University of California rejected 7,600 applicants who qualified for admission, instead guaranteeing them transfers as upperclassmen to one of the 10 campuses as long as they attend community college for two years. It marked the first time in more than 40 years that UC didn’t admit all eligible high-school seniors statewide.
“This squeeze on so many universities nationally is having the most profound effect on community colleges,” says Dr. Arthur M. Cohen, professor of higher education at UCLA. “Community colleges aren’t a student’s fallback option anymore.”
Joining these re-routed students at two-year colleges are what AACC’s Boggs calls Tidal Wave 2 — immigrants, low-income students and the children of baby boomers. While Tidal Wave 1 brought hordes of students in the 1960s, Boggs says that about 80 percent of Tidal Wave 2 are people of color.
Even with online courses easing some of the stresses of skyrocketing enrollment, Boggs says, a major concern today among educators is community college access. Although access has historically been its hallmark, ever-climbing enrollments have forced schools in some states to turn away students, such as in Florida, Washington and California, according to published reports. While Cohen and other experts contend that many of the displaced students aren’t serious degree-seekers but casual consumers trying to sign up for a class or two at the last minute, Boggs insists that “access, as our No. 1 value, must be preserved.”
“If we are denying access,” Boggs says, “who do we deny? We all benefit when people are educated. If we’re going to have a healthy society, we cannot shut the door now. One of our biggest fears is that a lot of older adults and low-income people are being displaced by the more educationally savvy.”
Miami Dade president Dr. Eduardo Padrón says that additional financial resources must somehow be secured for the necessary faculty and operations support to accommodate swelling enrollments. Miami Dade ranks have grown 40 percent in the past three years, now enrolling the highest number of Hispanics and the second highest number of Blacks of any college or university nationally. “There are no economies of scale in a learning endeavor,” Padrón says. “Abundant interaction between faculty and students is required.”
But most of all, community-college advocates say they must continue marketing the value of the schools to the public, especially to the uneducated. “The community college age is here,” says Houston’s Leslie. “We’re still trying to reach individuals who think college isn’t for them and their children. We have a moral imperative to do so.” 

Lydia Lum, a freelance journalist, has been writing for Black Issues In Higher Education since 1997. Lum, who is also a frequent public speaker on diversity issues, is authoring book manuscript “Angel Island/Story About a Chinese Immigrant.”

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