Community College No Longer?

Harper College’s effort to gain baccalaureate-granting status has sparked a debate in Illinois over the mission of two-year colleges.

Community colleges have long been the destination of choice for immigrants seeking English-language skills, older nontraditional students seeking flexible class schedules and students needing remediation to fill the gaps left by substandard K-12 schools. Nevertheless, many community colleges have expanded transfer-focused offerings in recent years, attracting students in other states and even across the globe with classes equivalent to courses offered by top-ranked universities.

Some community colleges have taken their missions one step further, developing bachelor’s degree programs that have sparked an intense debate over whether “mission creep” is setting into many community colleges that are dropping “community” from their name and slowly adding more and more bachelor’s programs. Many scholars openly question whether some community colleges will be distinguishable from four-year colleges as twoyear college administrators, faculty and students begin to promote the idea that their community college is a “junior” college no longer.

If mission creep sets in, what will happen to underprivileged inner-city populations to whom the community college is the one hope for gaining the skills to launch and maintain a prosperous career? What will happen to the new immigrant who will no longer be able to walk through the community college open door to gain basic language skills?

It is these questions among others that have sparked a debate over a bill pending in the Illinois legislature that would allow Harper College in Palatine to offer two pilot baccalaureate programs in public safety administration/ homeland security and technology management. The bill, HB 1434, was passed by the House last April and is now awaiting action in the Senate, and Harper President Robert L. Breuder says though Harper has been climbing a “steep mountain” in trying to get the bill passed and signed into law for the past five years now, “we stand the best chance ever of having this bill finally cleared.”

Many Illinois four-year colleges have uniformly opposed HB 1434, arguing that in addition to the mission creep concerns, any decision to allow Illinois community colleges to offer baccalaureates should come as part of a comprehensive higher education plan, not decided on a college-by-college basis.

University of Illinois at Springfield spokesman Thomas Hardy says the concept of allowing Harper to set up baccalaureate programs shouldn’t be realized via a single bill, but “this is a matter that is appropriate for the state board of higher education. They’re going to be developing a strategic plan for higher education in Illinois, and this is something that would be best addressed through that strategic planning process, rather than ad hoc changes from one part of the state to the next.”

And even the Illinois Community College Board has come out in opposition to HB 1434, as spokesman Steve Morse says “grade schools don’t offer high school diplomas, and grade schools have a certain mission. And high schools have a certain mission, and community colleges have one and so do universities. They all should complement each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to do each other’s jobs.”

Morse adds that two-year colleges should emphasize partnerships with four-year colleges that allow four-year colleges to set up bachelor’s programs on community college campuses.

Breuder says he fully supports the concept of having a four-year college locate a needed bachelor’s program on a community college campus, as has been done with a nursing bachelor’s offered at Harper through Northern Illinois University. Nevertheless, he says that if four-year schools are unwilling or unable to set up bachelor’s programs in high-demand career fields, community colleges are dutybound to step in and fill the void.

Can four-year institutions “meet every need which emerges in this community going forward? The answer is no, they can’t,” Breuder says. “So then why say a community college can’t do that if we have the same quality faculty, if we’ve got the physical plant, if we’ve got the resources, if we’ve got the expertise, if we’re going to do the same accreditation — why be backward-thinking and say essentially the baccalaureate is our sandbox, and only we can play in it? And even if we don’t want to play in it, relative to a particular program, you can’t get in that sandbox because it’s ours?”

Morse contends that “it takes a lot more resources” to launch new community college baccalaureate programs than it would take to use the existing infrastructure of four-year colleges to set up new bachelor’s programs on community college campuses.

Yet, Harper officials say their plan costs taxpayers nothing as it will be funded by tuition and corporate donations and not state funds, even after the six-year pilot phase ends. Breuder contends that four-year schools are concerned more about losing baccalaureate “market share” and the “revenue that will travel with it” as more students opt for the convenience and reduced cost of a community college bachelor’s.

The Nontraditional Learner

Main sponsor of the bill, Illinois state Rep. Fred Crespo, whose district is in the northwestern Chicago suburbs, says that community colleges offer more flexible class schedules than four-year colleges can offer even on twoyear college campuses, catering to the needs of nontraditional, working students. Crespo says Harper indeed has entered into baccalaureate partnerships with his alma mater, Loyola University, “but these partnerships pretty much mirror the scheduling of four-year institutions. The nice thing about junior colleges is they offer a lot of programs and classes outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for your nontraditional student.

“And we can’t forget who this is really intended for; these two pilot programs are geared towards working people. … When you have a community college who owns the bachelor’s degree program, they have the flexibility they currently have to meet the needs of ultimately, what really matters here, the people that they serve,” Crespo adds.

Yet, Morse points out that allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureates in Illinois poses a number of technical challenges, including how they will be accredited, as he wonders if that task “would be easily accomplished. There’s no mechanism right now for an accreditation process. We already have 12 state universities, and the community college board has always encouraged community colleges and universities to form partnerships where the baccalaureate degree can be offered on a community college campus; but the degree comes from the university, not the community college.”

Crespo says HB 1434’s six-year pilot provision will allow legislators to weigh the bill’s merits before renewing it or allowing it to sunset. He adds that the bill gives four-year colleges in Illinois the “right of first refusal,” meaning that Harper can set up a baccalaureate program only if a four-year college has been offered and declined the opportunity to set up its own program.

“There’s a strong sentiment, including mine, that Harper College will not become a fouryear institution. These are just selected programs that the four-year institutions are unable or unwilling” to launch, Crespo says. “We have a demonstrated need, and the fouryear colleges cannot meet it. If they can, that’s fine.”

Mission Creep?

Dr. Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, says that numerous states now allow community colleges to offer limited baccalaureates, and the number of students in those programs are a small fraction of the total student populations of those colleges, nullifying the “mission creep” argument.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves when you do a census of how many students are enrolled in bachelor’s programs in community colleges relative to the numbers of students who are enrolled in associate programs or continuing ed,” Hagan says. “The numbers are so small that it would be silly to say that the community college is becoming a four-year college, especially since so much time and effort is put into the transfer mission and the remediation mission.”

Hagan adds that a community college’s remediation mission “is frequently the paramount mission,” especially in communities with highly diverse, urban populations where many foreign languages are spoken.

Crespo says keeping a focus on remediation and serving students at the low end of the preparedness spectrum should continue to be a major component of Harper’s mission.

“I’m not being insensitive to what four-year institutions are concerned about, the whole issue of mission creep. … I’m very concerned about that too, because if I for one second thought that Harper College’s intention is to get away from being a junior college to becoming a four-year institution, I wouldn’t champion the bill; I would vote against the bill. “

As a minority, I’m more sensitive to it because we have a lot of minority kids who can’t go through the traditional four-year institutions. Junior colleges are a great option,” Crespo adds.

Breuder says that community colleges have evolved far beyond the original mission of Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., the nation’s first two-year college. According to Breuder, “The mission of community colleges over the last hundred years has broadened away from just being what Joliet was created to do, feed universities, to today where we do more than just feed universities; we got into developmental, technical, compensatory, prebaccalaureate.

“Everybody undergoes what some want to use in a bad way, ‘mission creep,’ because we’re changing to reflect the needs of the interests of the people, whether they’re local, statewide or national,” Breuder says.

Breuder says that a community dictates the mission of its community college, and if the consensus is that their community college should offer baccalaureate degrees or even become a four-year institution, so be it.

“Let’s just fast-forward this 50 years, and we’re predominately baccalaureate. The only way we could get that way, frankly, is if it reflected the needs of the community,” Breuder says. “So if Harper was created by the community, for the community and that’s what they dictated as the taxpayers, we have to reflect the disposition of the people who created us and paid for this.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF HARPER COLLEGE

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