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.