Wednesday, June 18, 2008


CC's as Replacements?

According to this article in IHE, the state of Florida is trying to get its community colleges to offer the four-year degrees that its upper-level schools can no longer afford to offer.

According to this article in IHE, the major points of discussion seem to be:

  1. Community colleges are cheaper, and they're accredited by the same agency that accredits the university campuses. This is a much more efficient use of taxpayer money for developing an educated workforce than, say, having the universities do it.


2. Community colleges suck, and can't do it.

I'd like to offer another perspective:

  1. Community colleges are good at the first two years precisely because of specialization. Lose that specialization, or that focus, and you lose the effectiveness.

In other words, I'm not against the proposal because of a lack of faith in community colleges. I'm against the proposal because I don't think it makes sense to turn a strong two-year school into a weak four-year one.

If anything, I'd support proposals for narrowing the 'comprehensive' focus of many cc's. Instead of trying to offer all majors to all people, split the institutions – have some focus largely on transfer and traditional academic subjects, and others focus largely on technical and vocational training. It makes perfect sense to me for a single area to have both a 'junior college' (though I've never liked that term) and a 'technical college.' Devoting an institution to a clear mission seems to me a likelier route to success than devoting to multiple and sometimes conflicting missions.

Why are cc's cheaper? Among other reasons, we don't have the research overhead of four-year colleges. Our faculty teach more credits per semester, since they don't have to do research, so their salaries are amortized over more (if lower) tuitions. That can work when the coursework doesn't go beyond the first two years, but I'd shudder to see that model extended upward. As the coursework becomes more specialized, currency in the research becomes more relevant.

(We also don't generally have the climbing walls and football factories and the general 'bread and circus' side of college life that seems to be an endless money pit. To that degree, there may be an argument for taking cc's as models.)

I frequently hear students lament that we don't offer four-year degrees. It's a lovely compliment, but much of what makes us appealing – low cost, small classes, tight focus – would be lost if we did. To the extent that there are issues around geographic access, many cc's, including mine, routinely 'host' classes taught by four-year colleges on our campus. We rent them space, and students can stay local while earning a degree from a college an hour or two away. In those cases, the four-year schools that rent space are responsible for faculty hiring, curriculum, transcripting, and the like; we just provide a facility. That approach lets us continue to focus on what we actually do well, while still meeting a real student need.

Although it's certainly refreshing to see cc's get some budgetary respect, this isn't the way to do it. Cc's aren't an alternative to the existing system of higher education; they're an integral part of it. They can make a real contribution when allowed to do what they do, but not when they try to pretend to be what they aren't. I count it as success when a student starts here, does well, transfers to a four-year college or university, thrives, and graduates. That's the goal. Dividing-and-conquering higher ed doesn't help anybody.

In my experience, CCs are operate at lower costs because states give them less money, period.

At all of them that I've taught at, we WISHED WISHED WISHED we had more money - for better equipment, to get down to a reasonable adjunct percentage, more class space, and so on. Students can see when we're making do with less and immediately suspect that their tuition savings isn't 100% efficiency, that they are missing out on resources. It makes some want to transfer sooner.

At the universities I've taught at, we of course would've enjoyed more money. But, we did have more and our department put what we had as directly toward the students' benefit as we could.

A disclaimer: I love being part of a CC.

Some jadedness: My opinion is that states don't have any incentive to give CCs resources equal to Universities. Because, then they'd be offering the same "product" at two different prices.

In any case, I thought the very idea of tax subsidies for education was that the social benefit of many education programs outweighs their financial cost. It's OK for programs to lose money. But, then again, funding has to come from somewhere...

To another topic: I strongly agree with the points about CCs having a focused mission. It seems to me that one of the bigger challenges facing CCs today an identity crisis balancing "first 2-years" vs. "vocational college". It's a tough one. Most communities need both. Adding to that mix would only make the balance harder to get right.
I recently read that USC (and a couple of other places) was dropping its German major because of lack of enrollments. I wonder how many of the low-enrollment majors at Florida's 4-year schools are offered at all those 4-year schools...why not encourage people who want to major in German to transfer to a school that offers a German major? Why feel obliged to offer it everywhere?
By the way, my suggestion about encouraging students to transfer to campuses which offer the major they want has its downside.

If students begin at Campus A, but then transfer to Campus B, Campus A's retention and graduation statistics will take a hit--that's a student you failed to retain, and who did not graduate from your campus within 6 years. So there are institutional reasons for schools not to encourage transfers.
My CC does require research and publication. Certainly not at the level of a 4-yr, but comparisons are being made with other CCs and 4-yrs in our system and the pressure is increasing from administration. It's required right now for promotion, and beginning this fall with new faculty hires, it will be required for tenure. I missed that one by coming in new last fall. Whew!
Amen. Educational apples and oranges. Community Colleges have a unique niche to fill and it should not be to grant four year degrees. Legislators are searching for ways to do more with their higher ed appropriations, while simultaneously shrinking the pool of available funds. It should come as no surprise that efficient and productive two year schools come off very appealing to legislative staffs. I suggest the better solution is to sunset some public universities that should never have been opened in the first place. In my state, as well as Florida, new institutions and duplicative degree programs have been chartered for political, not higher ed, reasons. I also love the pitch several decades ago for upper level institutions (Jr, Sr, and Grad) chartered in the same cities as community colleges. The mantra was not compete, but cooperate and compliment. Almost without exception, within five years most have added freshman and sophomore levels to give the full “university experience” to their campus. Wasted state funds IMHO.

A jaundiced Mighty Favog
I don't buy the quality argument. The minimum requirement to teach a BA or BS course is a masters with 18 hours in the content area. After that, is it more important to place the emphasis on teaching or on research?

I think perceptions of CC quality are biased by our lack of selectivity. If we only admitted 10-20% of our applicants, we would look pretty good too.

I'm also not sure about the cost argument, because the odds that these colleges will seek differential funding and tuition for their BS programs strikes me as being really high.

I finally took the time to look up Miami Dade College, and I see that all six degree programs they offer are in their School of Education. Their emphasis is on ESE and Secondary Ed in math or science, but it looks like they might also offer El Ed. I know the core requirements for those secondary ed classes well, since the class I teach is one of the required courses. Our CC teaches (really well) every non-ed content area required for those programs, so it would be pretty easy to build up our ed faculty to do the rest.

I, like others, worry more about mission creep. The Directional State Universities in my home state started out as "normal" schools. Their only mission (like the college part of Miami Dade) was to train teachers. In many respects, including their admission requirements, they operated much like a CC today. Now they are all comprehensive universities and one of them is a major engineering school. They are not open admissions colleges!

One thing I found in the Wiki was a link to the history of EMU. I strongly recommend reading the first part of it. Paragraphs 3 and 4 clearly spell out their admissions policy and goals (which included transfer to a college, such as Michigan or what is now Michigan State). Paragraph 5 describes an argument about teaching pedagogy -vs- teaching content that goes on today !!! while paragraph 7 describes the start of their mission creep toward what they are today.
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