The State of the Institution Formerly Known as “The People’s College”

Assessing the ides of marching globalization and privatization—and shrinking public funding—on community colleges.
A review essay by Christina Stern

Books Reviewed in This Essay

Editors’ Note: This review essay represents what we intend to be the first of several periodic attempts to bring together analysis and synthesis of critical issues and important new literature in postsecondary education. We will continue to solicit and publish individual book reviews, and we encourage readers to contact us with ideas for review essays.

—Cat Warren (faculty editor) and Kristen Renn (book review editor)

Community colleges are a quintessential American creation, and their century-long history is interwoven in complicated ways with the nation’s ideals of democracy, equality, and opportunity for all. Since their founding in the first decade of the 1900s, community colleges have multiplied rapidly throughout the United States. A lofty rhetoric has accompanied their steady rise. Leaders in politics and education have repeatedly hailed the community college as an “apple pie” enterprise—an exemplar of civic values and an open door to skills development, critical thinking, and career success.

This narrative is compelling, yes, as it situates the story of community colleges within the framework of social mobility and the American dream. But do “the people’s colleges” live up to their reputation to serve the needs of disadvantaged students? Do they offer students a reliable portal to bachelor’s degree–granting institutions and provide the kind of first-rate vocational training that leads to steady, stimulating jobs that pay more than a minimum wage? Or is the full story considerably more complex? Are community colleges in actuality the tragic characters of higher education, inadvertently perpetuating persistent stratifications and fierce economic inequalities?
No matter how one views this core debate, it is certain that a set of critical challenges looms on the horizon. Community colleges must adapt to the changing demands of the twenty-first century, including the likelihood of reduced public funding and a continually shifting political terrain. Educators will also need to take initiatives to enrich the learning experience of today’s students— a group that is increasingly diverse in backgrounds, ages, needs, and skills.

A number of recent studies address these questions and illuminate the complexity of these challenges. The literature on community colleges is surprisingly vast, composed of in-depth articles, essays, monographs, think-tank reports, and entire journals such as the Community College Review and the Community College Journal of Research and Practice. The works profiled in this essay all date from 2009, and they attest to the richness of the contemporary field. Each offers a useful set of angles for viewing community colleges—their meaning, mission, and methods—in today’s rapidly changing world.

Two interconnected themes are highlighted. The first concerns the institutional dynamics of responses to contextual change. Community colleges are enormously complicated, multifaceted entities. Because they are enmeshed in webs of relationships— with state and town governments, with local businesses and cultural organizations, with senior transfer colleges, and with their surrounding communities—they are greatly affected not only by individuals but also by a dizzying array of social, economic, and political forces. Their daily operation depends on a deft juggling of many variables—a task that has become trickier in the past two decades. Two recent works, Community Colleges and Their Students: Co-construction and Organizational Identity and Community Colleges on the Horizon: Challenge, Choice, or Abundance, offer a variety of perspectives on evaluating and promoting institutional success.

The second key theme is that the achievement of student goals is absolutely critical. Two additional books surveyed here place the spotlight on teaching practices, instructor-student relationships, and college policies that foster student development. Community colleges, in general, have an uphill task as they serve the needs of three categories of learners: students who want job training, students who seek transfer to four-year colleges, and students who need remedial classes. It is not uncommon for students of all three groups to be present in any given community college classroom. Effectively teaching all three types of learners is a near-Herculean feat for instructors, one made even more difficult by the reality that many students work full time while shouldering financial and family responsibilities. Some insightful perspectives on these difficulties are offered in Policies and Practices to Improve Student Preparation and Success, part of the Jossey-Bass series New Directions for Community Colleges. The sourcebook prompts readers to reflect on teaching practices within the modern context; it addresses a range of topics, including remediation, digital tools in the classroom, and the recent interest of private foundations in the community college venture. Finally, there is The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, based on in-depth interviews of community college students and their teachers. This book provides a sobering reminder that the campus setting, no matter how benign, may appear alien and intimidating to incoming students.

The Institutional Picture

Community Colleges and Their Students is a carefully designed empirical study and a valuable addition to the field. It will be of interest to readers seeking to explore community colleges as they are—as dynamic, nuanced institutions shaped not simply by stated policy but also by the myriad daily interactions of their students, faculty and staff members, and members of the broader community. Authors John S. Levin and Virginia Montero-Hernandez believe that too much of the existing research on community colleges misses a key ingredient, “the interactions between college personnel and students to construct educational experiences.” To fill the gap, the authors draw on data from thirteen community colleges in nine states, and they focus in great detail on six of those colleges. Their base of evidence is extensive, consisting of site observations and detailed interviews with students, faculty members, and administrators. One distinctive feature of the book is the generous sprinkling of direct quotations, both short and long. Deans, counselors, instructors, and students all have their say.

Using two sets of filters, organization identity theory in combination with cultural theory, Levin and Montero-Hernandez evaluate the evidence, the cultural life of community colleges, to underscore the “development of students as active social actors.” Traditional metrics of assessment—student grades, retention, and transfer rates—are simply inadequate, the authors maintain, as they do not capture a nuanced and multifaceted picture of student growth. They stress that students have the ability to co-construct meaningful learning experiences for themselves and their peers; nontraditional students, too, bring many gifts to the table.

Staff members and students together must harness existing cultural tools and resources to create vibrant “caring institutions” that favor the possibility of personal transformation. Drawing on their data, the authors show how each of the colleges under study is situated in a particular context and reflects in varying degrees the character, as well as the constraints, of that milieu. By tapping into available local capital—social, cultural, and economic—college staffs can effectively construct viable institutions to serve the needs of their learners. Each organization has a “personality” of its own. Illinois’s Harry Truman College, for example, is a very different type of college from the Community College of Denver or the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Yet all of them fulfill valuable roles. All are populated by communities of individuals, of students and staff, who care about the educational process.

Levin and Montero-Hernandez seek to add to the understanding of community colleges as organizations. But they also express a desire to give encouragement to teachers and learners. Funding cutbacks are painful realities, and, undoubtedly, these and other obstacles will persist in the coming years. Community colleges are resilient, however, with a pronounced “capacity to learn how to adapt to a complex and mutable environment.” The authors suggest that such “caring institutions” can continue to flourish, at least to some extent.

Or can they? To readers familiar with John Levin’s work, this message may seem a bit of a departure from his earlier books. Levin is a well-known researcher on North American community colleges. His books are among the most salient and provocative on the subject, and one study in particular is worthy of a quick detour. Globalizing the Community College, published in 2001, is a must-read for anyone concerned about the great “paradigm shift” of our times—globalization—and its effect on community colleges. The picture, Levin notes, is bleak. Community colleges, already the underdogs of higher education, have been particularly vulnerable to globalizing trends and pressures. Increasingly, colleges enter into partnerships with entities in the private sector to generate requisite funding. According to Levin, it is not simply a problem of colleges embracing policies that may give financial goals priority over students’ best interests. Adjustment to changing realities has also included wide-scale adoption, even internalization, of a corporatized managerial ethos. The reduction of full-time faculty in favor of part-time labor has been one dismal result. He explores similar themes in his two follow-up works, Community College Faculty: At Work in the New Economy (2006) and Nontraditional Students and Community Colleges: The Conflict of Justice and Neoliberalism (2007).

Levin and Montero-Hernandez’s book may shine a light on the positive—the promise of caring, thoughtful humans working together—but Levin himself remains troubled by the long-term institutional picture. This is plainly evident in another recent publication, a report titled Reimagining Community Colleges in the Twenty-first Century. Co-written by Levin and Brian Pusser, it is featured on the Web site of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. The report’s title is upbeat; the text itself is less so. Levin and Pusser describe the community college of today as a “crisis college,” and they outline the plethora of weighty challenges that hover on the horizon. Readers looking for an informative overview will find this a useful and multilayered summary.

Corporate Values

If Levin sees the institutional picture as problematic, the authors of Community Colleges on the Horizon take a somewhat different view. The book, published in partnership with the American Council on Education, radiates with a sense of optimism about the potential of smart college leaders to build thriving organizations. Its four authors, Richard Alfred, Christopher Shults, Ozan Jaquette, and Shelley Strickland, all affiliated with the University of Michigan, profile three models of institutional development. They label these models as challenge, choice, and abundance.

Starting too from the premise that the “ride into the future is going to be bumpy,” the authors also acknowledge that “community colleges are caught in the vortex of a revolution” and, “ready or not,” they are going to have to change. This situation presents a great opportunity for these institutions, since growing numbers of future students are likely to seek out their doors. The key question, the authors emphasize, is how college leaders will respond. Sure, they can fix their financial gaps and plug along year to year. But shouldn’t they strive to create game plans that are ambitious? Shouldn’t they aim to be bolder and more visionary in their outlooks? The answer to such questions might seem obvious, but the authors cite various examples to indicate that complacency still reigns in community colleges.

In the authors’ analysis, the act of leveraging is fundamental. Only by strategically leveraging a college’s assets can an institution become what the authors term a “college of abundance.” Such a college is one that is forward looking, high performing, and welcoming of innovation and calculated risk. At a “college of abundance,” the staff members, or “internal stakeholders,” are encouraged to take initiative, prize teamwork, and work across offices and departments. Most important, the college as a whole fulfills its purpose: it has become the “hub of an expansive network” of learners, teachers, and local partners. “Colleges of abundance” are different from “colleges of challenge,” which suffer from limited resources and ineffective leadership, and “colleges of choice,” which pursue opportunity selectively and with limited overall results.

As of this date, few colleges are at the “abundance” level, and, at one juncture, the authors themselves question how many are capable of attaining that goal. But, otherwise, the tenor of the book is largely upbeat—as a whole, it reads like something Dale Carnegie might have written if he were alive and consulting for America’s community colleges. The exuberant tone will appeal to some readers but may alarm others, particularly those who find the authors’ analysis too reliant on generalities and managerial jargon. The book abounds in energizing adjectives (“vital,” “holistic,” and “flourishing”), and the authors wax poetic about idealized leadership.

Some college faculty members might also puzzle over such statements as, “There is much that community colleges can learn about high performance by studying best practices in organizations outside of education,” followed by a recommendation to spend the day with Southwest Airlines to learn “about its hiring, staff development, and retention practices” or visit a Marriott site and get tips on customer service. There is no doubt that the authors themselves appreciate in some measure the core mission of community colleges—their access, affordability, and emphasis on students. But their description of these qualities as constituting a “formula” that has been “practically unbeatable when it comes to market share” may sound odd to those readers who have devoted their careers to the community college mission. This terminology also underscores the point made by Levin, that discourse in public education is now permeated by corporate and commercial jargon. The students have become customers, and the instructional staff, formerly known as the professoriate, specializes in course delivery.

Whether or not readers agree with the book’s recommendations, the authors do make their probusiness framework explicit. There is no hiding of motive. In the acknowledgments, they thank the Strategic Horizon Network, a group of fourteen community colleges that are “committed to identifying and importing ways of business” into their institutions. They also express gratitude to the Center for Community College Development (which was co-founded by the lead author) and to an array of corporations, including Marriott, Caterpillar, Disney, and Southwest Airlines, which contributed in various ways to these ventures. Beneficial or baleful, the larger trend is clear: corporate players and values have made their way into the community college setting.

Corporate values have also become part of students’ expectations. The authors underline that the customer service revolution, in conjunction with the digital revolution, means that community colleges will have to adapt to a 24-7 culture and offer new methods of instruction that include more online offerings. They are most persuasive in their argument that community colleges will have to do more to compete for students in the future. The advantages offered historically by their physical proximity as local institutions may be rendered obsolete by the near ubiquity of digital technologies. Students will increasingly be able to access online classes offered by any institution anywhere, including those based in other states and continents. Coming soon to the educational neighborhood will also be an influx of “knowledge providers,” private entities that offer an array of reasonably priced courses, many online, some even in a popular video game format.

The University of Phoenix may be anathema to many academics, but it also may be a harbinger of things to come. Alfred and colleagues note that Phoenix is already the largest university in the world, serving more than 250,000 students. Their profile of Phoenix, which is a subsidiary of the Apollo Group, Inc., encapsulates several main points. Underpinning all facets of its operation is a methodical business model that stresses “efficiencies,” cost control, client service, and job placement for students. Phoenix treats its courses—which include a mix of online, campus, and hybrid versions—as standardized products, analogous to how a chain store views its signature brands. Job training and placement form a particular niche. Not only does Phoenix cultivate relationships with targeted industries, as do many community colleges, but many of its courses are also designed specifically to meet those corporations’ preferences.

The University of Phoenix, in and of itself, may not be a threat to community colleges. But it is likely that a host of similar institutions will join the competitive arena of the future and attract an increasing share of adult students. Learners looking for a fast route to certain jobs may be increasingly tempted to abandon their local public college in favor of a Phoenix-style model.

Community Colleges on the Horizon explores the “megaquestion” posed by its authors: “What new skills and competencies will we [community colleges] need to build to establish or maintain an advantage?” But the authors’ suggestions may not be terribly reassuring to those readers who view teaching as a standards-based profession and to those who see their purpose as fostering intellectual development, not as delivering content. (The book is also not comforting for those of us who value the simple things, like full-time employment.) Many readers will be downright appalled by the book’s idealization of corporate practices. But the book does provide a thorough and interesting outline of contemporary trends, and some readers may feel inspired by its call for daring leadership.

Student Learning and Success

In Policies and Practices to Improve Student Preparation and Success, editors Andrea Conklin Bueschel and Andrea Venezia take up the call for leadership by providing concrete strategies designed to advance student learning. The volume spotlights the goal of sustained student success at community colleges and explores three questions in relation to it. First, what does the research, now measurably increased after a decade of extensive study, reveal about the dynamics of student learning? Second, which particular methods and approaches produce positive results? Finally, what steps can community colleges take to construct a supportive learning environment and promote higher rates of retention and transfer?

The chapters constitute a “handbook” of current practices, and readers will find much of immediate interest. The authors stay away from detailed theory, instead training their lenses on recent research findings as well as on real-life classrooms and colleges. All information is carefully sourced and, in effect, provides readers with a “road map” of the research field. Chapter 1, by editor Conklin Bueschel, provides a concise introduction to the history and multiple functions of community colleges while pinpointing an essential paradox. Community colleges, she notes, are tremendously successful at welcoming and enrolling students, but they are significantly less effective at seeing them through to transfer or completion of their intended program. This situation is particularly acute in developmental education. The research shows that students who begin in remedial classes are at a high risk of dropping out within a few semesters. The drop-out phenomenon may be the result of many complex factors, some of which are beyond the institutions’ control. But, as community colleges are home to almost half of all postsecondary students, it is vital that policies be developed to assist students in the pursuit of long-term goals. Many individual campuses have experimented with programs like learning communities and supplemental instruction. These innovations, which stress student acclimation and peer-to-peer interactions, have had some successes and are viewed by many as a movement in the right direction. Yet more remains to be done.

Here, Conklin Bueschel argues, the work of foundations has been pivotal. Achieving the Dream, for example, is a $100 million project sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, among other funders, that has as its target the improvement of student outcomes. The project’s method is to collect and analyze data from a large number of participating community colleges as a means of understanding what works and what does not. In addition to creating a comprehensive database, researchers hope this information will inspire and improve decision making at schools across the country. But there is debate. As of yet, the long-term efficacy of these projects is unknown, and some educators question the foundations’ motives and methodologies, particularly their use of traditional measures of assessment. On the other side, some exciting pioneering work is being done at U.S. community colleges. The Cinderella of higher education is receiving some attention—well deserved but long overdue.

All the chapters in Policies and Practices are worth reading for their constructive insights and suggestions. Thomas Bailey, a prolific researcher on community colleges, argues in chapter 2 for a complete “rethinking” of developmental education, noting that too many students simply get lost in the remedial process. He proposes that colleges open regular courses to more students and build into them increased support, like tutoring and peer instruction. The writers of chapter 3, Nancy Hoffman, Joel Vargos, and Janet Santos, draw on studies to recommend that colleges build on preexisting relationships with local high schools to create “stronger pathways” to the community college. In chapter 7, writers Chris Juzwiak and Monette Tiernan introduce readers to the new frontier, the classroom as “cyberspaceship.” With funding from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the authors experimented with an array of digital tools to try to “discover whether the electronic media could transport” the class to “new cognitive and imaginative galaxies.” Their toolbox included hyperlinked essays, cutting-edge Internet sources, and “living textbooks,” instructor-designed Web pages. Although the descriptions of the digital “toys” are the eye-catching part, the article also illuminates the key principles of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Transforming a course through digital media requires careful planning, in-depth reflection, and an ongoing commitment. A course is not a video game.

Caring Institutions

Much modern scholarship on community colleges pivots on a sense of drama. The broad theme is the community college in crisis or the community college at a crossroads. The literature stresses overarching trends (globalization), bold initiatives (multimillion dollar studies), and big players (corporations, foundations, and leaders in higher organizational positions). That is why the next book, Rebecca D. Cox’s The College Fear Factor, is so needed. No matter how sophisticated the technology, no matter how brilliant the master plan, success in classrooms and advisement offices hinges on the skills and sensitivity of teachers, counselors, and other personnel. Students need to feel welcomed.

Cox tries to understand and explain the perceptions of incoming college students, particularly those at community colleges. Her findings, which are based on observations of classes and interviews with students and instructors, attest to a simple reality. Many students are uncertain about whether they belong in college and are anxious about their abilities to do well. This is especially so for many first-generation students—often children of immigrants and lower-income families. To many of them, the community college is a terrifying place.

What makes Cox’s book so valuable is that she draws on interviews to get into the nitty-gritty of student-professor interactions. Even the most experienced and perceptive of teachers may be surprised to learn how a simple comment, intended as helpful, can be heard by a student in a contrary way. Cox’s research also reminds us that a student’s problematic behavior (lack of attention in class, for example, or failure to turn in assignments) may mask a paralyzing sense of self-doubt, and instructors should attempt intervention before that person fails out. While none of these general points will surprise most educators, Cox’s treatment of the issues underscores just how complex and tricky the teacher-student relationship can be.

In accentuating the human dimension, Cox’s work brings us back to a vital point. Community colleges embody the humanist ideal that all individuals have talents worth nurturing. The prevalence of community colleges in the American landscape attests also to a core belief in the accessibility of education. For more than a century, community colleges have enabled countless individuals to explore new subjects, strengthen their skills, and gain access to job opportunities. Now more than ever, these “caring institutions” need to continue their democratic mission to provide a “leg-up” to a new generation of learners. Heading into the future, community colleges will not be the only ones that face problems. Today’s college students will confront a bewildering array of challenges as they, too, try to comprehend and navigate the forces of rapid economic change. Community colleges can play a valuable role in helping students understand this complex panorama and develop the skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. It is critical that “the people’s colleges” flourish in the future; millions of Americans, literally, are counting on them.

Christina Stern teaches full time in the history department at Rockland Community College, part of the State University of New York. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

Books Reviewed in This Essay

The College Fear Factor: How Professors and Students Misunderstand One Another. Rebecca D. Cox. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009

Community Colleges on the Horizon: Challenge, Choice, or Abundance. Richard Alfred, Christopher Shults, Ozan Jaquette, and Shelley Strickland. Lanham, Md.:Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009

Community Colleges and Their Students: Co-construction and Organizational Identity. John S. Levin and Virginia Montero-Hernandez. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Policies and Practices to Improve Student Preparation and Success: New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 145. Andrea Conklin Bueschel and Andrea Venezia, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009

Reimagining Community Colleges in the Twenty-first Century: A Student-Centered Approach to Higher Education. John Levin and Brian Pusser. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, December 2009