Tuesday, December 11, 2012


In Praise of Niches

This blog doesn’t address car repair, the Twilight series, Hungarian food, or speculation about the next Secretary of State.  Its set of topics is relatively defined, as regular readers know.

That’s not because I adjudge those other topics unworthy or uninteresting; if any of them strike your fancy, there’s no shortage of other places to read about them.  It’s just that there’s a limit to the number of things I can address thoughtfully, and I don’t see much point in covering topics just to cover them.  I’ve found a niche, and that’s where I work.  People who are interested in this niche sometimes find their way here; people who aren’t, don’t.

I thought about that in reading about the University of Phoenix’s  (Phoenix’?) lobbying to prevent community colleges in Arizona from expanding to offer four-year degrees.  The angle the article took was that it was exposing a “plot to corner the cheap education market.”  The U of Phoenix was cast as the evil, money-grubbing mastermind behind a lobbying campaign to prevent the heroic and virtuous community colleges from doing more to serve their students.

Well, maybe.  The motive is certainly there, as are the means and the opportunity.  I doubt that Arizona’s legislators needed to be pushed to champion the private sector -- they seem pretty far right on their own -- but that’s a matter of judgment.  

My issue with the article isn’t so much the idea that the University of Phoenix hired lobbyists to pursue its self-interest in the legislature.  I assume that’s true, and find it unremarkable.  It’s with the idea that community colleges offering four-year degrees is an unalloyed good.  That’s not obvious to me at all.

Admittedly, my view may be influenced by my location.  Western Massachusetts has no shortage of four-year colleges and universities, both public and private.  From the main HCC campus, it’s a half-hour drive or less to UMass-Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, Elms College, Springfield College, Western New England University, American International College, and Westfield State University.  (On the two-year level, you also reach Springfield Technical Community College.) Go a little farther East and you hit Worcester and Boston, both of which have a few colleges of their own.  From here, the idea that the first order of business should be to offer bachelor’s degrees just doesn’t make sense.  If anything, from here the first order of business should be -- and is -- transfer.

But my misgivings go beyond a particularly fertile location.  They’re rooted in the idea of a niche.

Community colleges already have broad missions.  They provide non-credit courses in workforce development, personal enrichment, and adult basic education.  They provide developmental courses for people who want college degrees but whose academic preparation has gaps.  They provide terminal degrees in workplace-ready fields, and they provide associate’s degrees that are built for transfer.  

That’s a pretty big niche now.  It’s why over forty percent of the undergraduates in America are at community colleges.  By any reasonable measure, it’s a full plate.  With increased public pressure to improve graduation rates -- and shoestring budgets with which to do it -- improving the quality of delivery across such a wide range, with open admissions, will require sustained focus.  It will require the willingness and ability to reap the fruits of what specialization we still have.

Adding bachelor’s degrees to the portfolio, particularly in the absence of bachelor’s tuition and funding levels, would make improvement that much harder.  Suddenly the faculty would have to pick up the entire 300- and 400- level curriculum, on top of the heavy pre- and intro- level teaching they already do.  We’d suddenly have to scale up facilities for upper-level science courses, which don’t come cheap.  We’d have to increase tuition dramatically, with predictable political consequences.  And our entire marketing and public profile would have to change.  Instead of being a feeder for so many four-year colleges, all of a sudden we’d be a direct competitor.  Resources currently directed to such useful but unsexy purposes as tutoring would have to be redirected to sales.  

A college that has to be everything to everyone seems unlikely to do it all well, just as a blog that tries to address every topic under the sun seems destined to get much of it wrong.  I’d rather do a two-year mission well than multiple missions badly.  Let the four-year colleges handle the upper division; they do it well, and our students thrive when they get there.  Our successes aren’t because of magic or money or superior ability; they’re due to focus.  Take that away, and we’d be lost.  

The University of Phoenix probably wasn’t thinking this way when it worked to stop community colleges from offering bachelor’s degrees.  Its motives were probably a good bit more self-interested.  But it may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons.  Let the four-year colleges do what they do well; community colleges already have a niche, and an important one.

Your comment that CC's "provide developmental courses for people who want college degrees but whose academic preparation has gaps" prompted a random thought:

The problem we have with measuring retention and success as a COLLEGE is muddled by including pre-college developmental classes in the same category as college-level composition and math classes. We don't have that problem with adult ed GED classes.

Yes, I know that financial aid will only pay for learning HS English and math after "graduating" HS if you are in "college", but wouldn't it be helpful is students who need remediation in both English and Math were not considered FTIC freshmen?
On your main point, your point about science majors is well taken. (Based, I expect, on the cost of a Nursing program!) However, based on what I know about the curriculum at a nearby university, the demands for a BSRN are fairly localized within the Nursing program. My CC already teaches all of the non-nursing sciences needed for that degree. Something similar also applies to a BA in elementary ed.

If they stay as a niche 4-year school, adding programs with a local need would make sense. We could even turn a profit if we got as much for a 4-year student as the universities around here get from the state.

But that is where the problem begins. That profit pays for the next program, and so it goes. I know enough random history to know that a whole bunch of midwestern directional state universities that are now R1 started out as "normal" colleges, producing only teaching degrees. How long before that 4-year CC has a football team, dreaming of an FBS bowl game? Fifty years? Then we would have to reinvent the 1960s Community College in 2060!
It's easy to say that CCs should limit themselves when you have many colleges available to your population, but in many rural areas the CC is the only college...

I'm not so sure that expanding the CC is exactly the right way to go, but it could be the case that the CC has capacity to partner with a more distant college and, in effect, have a campus of that college on their grounds.. Assuming the classroom space exists already (not the case at my CC, but it could be the case elsewhere), a limited number of BA/BS degrees that build on the programs that are already strong could help placebound folks stay in their areas, near their support systems, and ultimately have a better job in their area.
@ Patty: it's already happening that a 4-year offers the remaining courses needed for a BA on a 2-year campus (and this is in the Chicago region where distances are not such a problem)., Don't know yet what the results are. Another model is Northern Michigan U, which has 2-year programs on-campus as well as 4-year (but where the 4-year program came first). There, distances are the reason for co-location.

But I agree with Dean Dad: trying to expand the range of students to pretty much everyone is not a good game plan. Most students who want a 4-year degree want it to come from a "real" 4-year instituition.
In other words, they want credentialing as well as knowledge. I also agree with the above poster that incoming students who need remediation should not be counted in grad rates (which should incloude transfer rates) until they move into non-remedial classes.
It sounds like you're assuimg the slippery slope. My CC began offering a bachelor's degree a few years ago. A. Single. Bachelor's. Degree. It is a Bachelor's of Appied Science in Organizational Management. In order to take courses towards earning it, students need to have earned an Associate's of Applied Science degree. It's for students that work in a "vocational field" that need a higher degree to advance in their company.

Don't think that because we offer a niche bachelor's degree we'll expand to BAs in History or BSs in Physics.

I like your acknowledgment that location matters. For the most part, I would say that it should be up to the college to decide whether offering bachelor degrees is reasonably possible. Like you pointed out, in the absence of bachelor's funding and tuition, it is unlikely that the program would be a smashing success because the resources to support a bachelor's demands simply aren't there. In those cases, money will do the talking (in theory, but I'm not in admin; correct me if I'm wrong) and decide whether such a program will last or not.
Refreshingly clear-eyed analysis, thank you. Your focus on your niche pays off handsomely in this excellent post.
@ anonymous 7:02
"Don't think that because we offer a niche bachelor's degree we'll expand to BAs in History or BSs in Physics."

My institution started a 4-year degree quest a while ago.
At first they talked about "viable degrees", to fulfill local needs for expertise. No 4-year degree has been implemented for lack of funding for facilities or faculty, but the quest has already been expanded to degrees such as literature and religion(which graduates would not easily find jobs) and physics and biochemistry(which facilities are extremely expensive, and stand at a longer distance to our developmental math students).

The graduation rates for a 4-year degree will even be smaller than that of 2-year degree, if these statistics continue to be calculated based on the the dev math/ english entryway.

The cost to students has already gone up considerably.

The solution would be for Community Colleges to lobby for additional study grants for those who are holders of 2 year degress, instead of lifetime maxima
Resources currently directed to such useful.
Transmission Service Hollywood FL
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?