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Evolving Priorities and Expectations of the Community College (Current Issues)

Tomorrow's Academy

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But all questions of curriculum, students, and institutional mission pale in the light of funding issues. Are the community colleges – or any other schools – worth what they cost? Have the colleges overextended themselves? Do their outcomes justify the public resources they consume? Can they, should they, be called to account for their outcomes?


The posting below looks at several issues currently facing community colleges.  It is from Chapter 1 – Background:  Evolving Priorities and Expectations of the Community College, in the book The American Community College, by Arthur M. Cohen, Florence B. Brawer, and Carrie B. Kisker. Published Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Trigger Warnings Ahead



Tomorrow’s Academy

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Evolving Priorities and Expectations of the Community College


Current Issues

The revolution in American education, in which the two-year college played a leading role, is almost over. Two years of postsecondary education are within reach – financially, geographically, practically – of virtually every American. Three generations have passed since President Harry Truman’s Commission on Higher Education recommended that the door to higher education be swung open. Now community colleges are everywhere. There are systems with branches in inner cities and rural districts and with programs in prisons and on military bases. Classes are offered through online instruction, twenty-four hours a day, every day. Open-admissions policies and programs for everyone ensure that no member of the community need miss the chance to attend.

Riding the demographics of the World War II baby boom, the fiscal largesse resulting from an expanding economy, and wave of public support for education, community colleges had been organized in every state by the 1960s. By the mid-1970s when the colleges enrolled 34 percent of all students in U.S. higher education, there were nearly eleven hundred institutions. This number has slipped slightly as branch campuses are no longer counted as separate entities and as for-profit institutions have gained a greater foothold in the sector. Nonetheless, a mature system of community colleges has taken its place as a central element in the fabric of American postcompulsory education.

This maturity has not changed the colleges’ perennial problems of funding, public perception, relative emphasis, purposes, and value. To Bogue in 1950, the critical problems of the community colleges were devising a consistent type of organization, maintaining local or state control, developing an adequate general education program integrated with the occupational, finding the right kinds of teachers, maintaining adequate student guidance services, and getting the states to appropriate sufficient funds. These problems have never been satisfactorily resolved.

Recent changes in both intra- and extramural perceptions of community colleges have led to other issues. Some of these shifts are due to educational leadership at the state and the institutional level, but more are because of changing demographic patterns and public perceptions of institutional purposes. First, there has been a blending in the uses of occupational and collegiate education. Vocational education was formerly considered terminal. Students were expected to complete their formal schooling by learning a trade and going to work. Students who entered occupational programs and failed to complete them or who did not work in the fields for which they were trained were considered to have been misguided. Transfer and liberal arts programs were designed to serve as a bridge between secondary school and baccalaureate studies. Students who entered the programs and failed to progress to the bachelor’s degree were considered dropouts.

Since the 1970s, however, high proportions of students who complete occupational programs have been transferring to universities. Vocational programs typically maintain curricula in which the courses are sequential. Many of these programs, especially those in the technologies and the health fields, articulate well with baccalaureate programs. Most have selective admissions policies. Students are forced to make an early commitment, satisfy admissions requirements, maintain continual attendance, and progress satisfactorily. This pattern of schooling reinforces the serious students, leading them to enroll in further studies at a university. The liberal arts courses, in contrast, are now frequently taken by students who have not made a commitment to a definite line of study, who already have degrees and are taking courses for personal interest, or who are trying to build up their prerequisites or grade-point averages so that they can enter a selective admissions program at the community college or another institution. Thus, for many students, the collegiate courses have become the catchall, the vestibule program.

A second issue is that, by the 1970s, the linear aspect of community colleges – the idea that the institution assists students in bridging the freshman and sophomore years – had been severely reduced as a proportion of the community colleges’ total effort. The number of students transferring was reasonably constant, but most of the expansion in community college enrollments was in the areas of occupational and continuing education. The collegiate programs remained in the catalogs, but students used them for completely different purposes. They dropped in and out, taking the courses at will. The course array in the collegiate programs was more accurately viewed as lateral rather than linear. Not more than one in ten course sections enforced course prerequisites; not more than one course in ten was a sophomore-level course. What had happened was that the students were using the institution in one way, whereas the institution’s patterns of functioning suggested another. Catalogs displayed recommended courses, semester by semester, for students planning to major in one or another of a hundred fields. But the students took those courses that were offered at a preferred time of day or those that seemed potentially useful. In the 1980s, many colleges took deliberate steps to quell the pattern of course attendance, but requirements regarding sequence proved difficult to enforce until the recent growth in the number of eighteen-year-olds brought higher proportions of baccalaureate-bound students into the community colleges.

Third, a trend toward less-than-college-level instruction has accelerated. In addition to the increased number of remedial courses as a proportion of the curriculum, expectations in collegiate courses have changed. To take one example, students in community college English literature courses in 1977 were expected to read 560 pages per term, on average, whereas, according to Koos (1924), the average was three times that in high school literature courses in 1922. These figures are offered not to derogate community colleges but only to point out that the institutions cannot be understood in traditional terms. They are struggling to find ways of educating students whose prior learning has been dominated by nonprint images. The belief that a person unschooled in the classics was not sufficiently educated died hard in the nineteenth century; the ability to read prose as a criterion of adequate education has been questioned in an era when most messages are carried by wires and waves.

Fourth, external demands for achievement indicators have not been uniformly well received. Introducing finite concepts such as graduation, transfer, and job-getting rates into an enterprise that has at bottom the open-ended goal of leading people to a better life has had a jarring effect, which explains much of the antagonism to contemporary moves toward judging, comparing, and in some cases funding community colleges on the basis of their products or outcomes. Statements such as “The value of education becomes apparent only years after the students have left college” (sometimes expressed as “The things we teach can’t be measured”) have been made for decades by staff members whose focus is on process. In sum, an unbridgeable gulf exists between concentrating exclusively on individual progress and assessing institutional accomplishments.

But all questions of curriculum, students, and institutional mission pale in the light of funding issues. Are the community colleges – or any other schools – worth what they cost? Have the colleges overextended themselves? Do their outcomes justify the public resources they consume? Can they, should they, be called to account for their outcomes? These questions have appeared with increasing frequency as public disaffection with elementary and secondary schools has grown. Whether the community colleges stand alone or whether they are cast with the higher or lower schools, their advocates will be forced to respond.

Several other current issues may also be phrased as questions. How much more than access and illusory benefits of credits and degrees without concomitant learning do the colleges provide? Are they in or out of higher education? How much of their effort is dedicated to higher learning, to developing rationality and advancing knowledge through the disciplines? How much leads students to form habits of reflection? How much tends toward public and private virtue?

Is it moral to sort and grade students, sending the more capable to the university while encouraging the rest to follow other pursuits? Commenting on the terminal programs – the commercial and general education courses that did not transfer to the universities – Eells noted, “Students cannot be forced to take them, it is true, but perhaps they can be led, enticed, attracted” (1931, p. 310). And in his chapter on the guidance function, he stressed, “it is essential that many students be guided into terminal curricula” (p. 330). Koos also contended that “the great majority will be best served by terminal programs” (Eells 1941b, p. 327). Viewed from a contemporary perspective, do Eell’s and Koos’s assertions still apply?

What would the shape of American education be if the community colleges had never been established? Where would people be learning the trades and occupations? Apprenticeships were the mode in earlier times. Would they still dominate, as they do in Europe? Would the less-than-college-level regional occupational centers and area vocational and technical schools be larger and more handsomely funded? Would different configurations have developed?

What would have happened to the academic transfer function? How many fewer students would be attending college? Would the universities have expanded to accommodate all who sought entry? Community colleges certainly performed an essential service in the 1960s and 1970s when masses of high school graduates, the first wave of baby boomers, demanded access. By offering an inexpensive, accessible alternative, these colleges allowed the universities to maintain at least a semblance of their own integrity. How many universities would have been shattered if community colleges to which the petitioners could be shunted had not been available? Similar issues arose in the 1990s, when the second wave arrived and a steady increase in the number of high school graduates brought access forward once again as a major issue.

If there were no community colleges, what agencies would be performing their community service? How many of the services they provide would be missed? Would secondary schools better maintain their own curricular and instructional integrity if community colleges were not there to grant students absolution for all past educational sins? Would other institutions assume the developmental function?

Although such questions have been asked from time to time, they have rarely been examined, mainly because during most of its history the community college has gone unnoticed, ignored by writers about higher education. Books on higher education published from the turn of the twentieth century, when the first community colleges appeared, through the 1980s rarely gave even a nod to the community college; one searches in vain for a reference to them in indexes. In 1950, Bogue deplored the lack of attention paid to the junior colleges, saying that he had examined twenty-seven authoritative histories of American education and found only superficial treatment of junior colleges or none at all. Rudolph’s major history of the higher education curriculum, first published in 1977, gave them a scant two pages. Pascarella and Terenzini’s massive review, How College Affects Students (1991), offered little more. Recently, however, their 2005 update and a small body of literature, noted in Chapter Thirteen on scholarship, have been filling in some of the gaps.

Perhaps community colleges should merely be characterized as untraditional. They do not follow the central themes of higher education as it developed from the colonial colleges through the universities. They do not typically provide students with new value structures, as residential liberal arts colleges aspire to do. Nor do they further the frontiers of knowledge through scholarship and research training, as in the finest traditions of the universities. Community colleges do not even follow their own traditions. They change frequently, seeking new programs and new clients. Community colleges are indeed untraditional, but they are truly American because at their best they represent the United States at its best. Never satisfied with resting on what has been done before, they try new approaches to old problems. They maintain open channels for individuals, enhancing the social mobility that has characterized America, and they accept the idea that society can be better, just as individuals can better their lot within it.


Koos, L.V. The Junior College. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1924.

Eells, W.C. The Junior College. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Eells, W.C. Why Junior College Terminal Education? Washington, D.C.: American Association of Junior Colleges, 1941b.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.