Multiple Identities of Community Colleges


by Lisa Stein

Community colleges have experienced stunning growth in the last few decades. Established almost 100 years ago to provide a better-trained workforce, they have since changed the rules of access to college. Across the country about 46 percent of all new college students, many of them low-income and minorities, are enrolled in community colleges, a fivefold increase since 1965. However, research finds these organizations often fail to help students meet their educational goals and start successful careers. Most community college students don't even graduate.

Community colleges have experienced stunning growth in the last few decades

Community colleges' large presence in higher education has attracted a lot of attention from researchers in recent years, among them James E. Rosenbaum, professor of education and social policy and of sociology, and Michelle Reininger, assistant professor of human development and social policy and learning sciences. Both look at what learning is needed to allow community colleges to harness their fast-growing impact and create the kind of changes that will improve education.

Rosenbaum's research focuses on why community colleges fall short in helping their students to complete degrees and compares community colleges with private two-year colleges that offer accredited associates degrees. Reininger examines what role community colleges play in preparing teachers, especially for hard-to-staff schools. Their analyses could have important implications for the way community colleges are organized and managed in the future.

Promise and practice at community colleges
"Community colleges are just about the only dependable option for higher education for those who don't have a lot of money or who didn't do well in high school," Rosenbaum says. "Because of this, community colleges are really important to understand."

Both Rosenbaum and Reininger observe that community colleges have become something of a grab bag in the world of postsecondary education, which makes their job extremely difficult. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, these public, two-year institutions strive to offer open access to higher education, prepare students for transfer to four-year institutions, provide workforce development and skills training, and offer noncredit programs such as English as a second language and community enrichment programs. In addition, they must work with ever-shrinking budgets, receiving most of their funding from states.

Community colleges provide job skills training through programs such as those for automotive technology, pharmacy technician and culinary arts at Chicago's Kennedy-King College, Malcolm X College and Washburne Culinary Institute, respectively
Community colleges provide job skills training through programs such as those for automotive technology, pharmacy technician and culinary arts at Chicago's Kennedy-King College, Malcolm X College and Washburne Culinary Institute, respectively.
Photos courtesy of City Colleges of Chicago


Their current identity crisis, Rosenbaum says, arises from the complexity of meeting their two main goals: guiding students toward four-year colleges and providing them with vocational skills for the labor market.

Rosenbaum's most recent book, After Admission: From College Access to College Success, takes a look at the impact of community colleges on students. Some of what he and co-authors Regina Deil-Amen and Ann E. Person discovered is inspiring. The good news is that, contrary to what some critics have charged, teachers at community colleges tend to be idealistic about helping their students get a second chance at education and strongly encourage them to aim high in their career goals. Some teachers even go out of their way to find students employment or place them in apprenticeships, even though it's not in their job descriptions. Most hopeful of all, Rosenbaum has seen many success stories of people who were unemployed or stalled in dead-end jobs who attended community college, went on to good jobs or four-year colleges, and turned their lives around.

Where change is needed
The bad news, however, lies in the obstacles community college students must overcome to complete their degrees. Above all, Rosenbaum says, community colleges need to offer students more guidance. First, administrators often do not effectively communicate to students everything they must do to complete a degree. Students frequently have to figure out schools' procedures, requirements and remedial course offerings on their own, and they make many mistakes.

Second, students suffer from a dearth of advisors who can help them choose appropriate classes and eventually locate jobs. At some schools Rosenbaum studied, the ratio of advisors to students was as high as 1,000 to 1, making it virtually impossible for students to get the help they needed. "Registration week comes along and students can't see a counselor. We saw students making bad decisions and taking courses that didn't even count towards their major, or that were too easy or too hard," he says. These mistakes often lead to serious disappointments and dropping out of college.

Meanwhile, private colleges, which are usually smaller, make considerable investment in counseling. They have plenty of counselors to steer students in the right direction and act on the belief that guidance is crucial in retaining students. Unlike many community colleges, private colleges also have well-funded job placement services. Dedicated staff work hard to build relationships with local employers to find out what skills they look for in hiring and then ensure that students are taught those skills.

Severe cuts in the budgets of community colleges have led to reducing counseling services, which takes a terrible toll on student retention, Rosenbaum has found. "Counseling is not a frill; it's not ancillary. Ironically, private colleges are certainly more cost-conscious than the public sector. If they think it's worth doing, then they have figured out that it is a cost-effective component for helping students complete degrees."

According to Rosenbaum, a needed change for community colleges is to simplify their goals with clearly structured programs that focus on students who want job training and those who want transfer options. "They should pick a few things to be good at and make sure to offer the required courses when needed, strong advising and job placement. It's a sound organizational strategy. You can't be good at everything, especially when you're getting your budget cut."

Assistant professor Michelle Reininger (center), who is researching the role of community colleges in teacher preparation, consults with SESP students Jackson Froliklong and Shari Lewis, who assist with her research. At Daley College in Chicago, students attend graduation and gather on campus
Assistant professor Michelle Reininger (center), who is researching the role of community colleges in teacher preparation, consults with SESP students Jackson Froliklong and Shari Lewis, who assist with her research. At Daley College in Chicago, students attend graduation and gather on campus.
Photo by Andrew Campbell and courtesy of City Colleges of Chicago



Community colleges for teacher training
Reininger agrees that community colleges may need to sharpen their focus if they hope to serve as a viable source of K-12 teachers. Over the last few years she has looked at how well community colleges prepare people for teaching careers. To assess this, she studied how well these organizations assist students in earning bachelor's degrees, which are required for teaching.

Her research, presented at a conference of the American Economic Association in January, found that individuals who attended community colleges were less likely to become teachers than those who went straight to a four-year college. Her sample was students who began college not necessarily intending to teach but just to earn bachelor's degrees. The data came from a national longitudinal study that tracked students for 12 years, starting in eighth grade, and rated their progress in a number of areas.

"In general, those teachers who attended community colleges scored lower on academic assessments, were more likely to need remedial work and were from families with lower socioeconomic levels," Reininger says. However, Reininger cautions that she used data from the 1990s, before a recent push to improve teacher preparation at community colleges, and that the colleges' influence is unclear. "It's hard to attribute a causal effect to an institution. I can't say that community colleges are doing something wrong in this area. In fact, most students entering community colleges are less prepared for post-secondary education."

Reininger's findings come at a time when some educators are looking to community colleges as a way to expand opportunities for teacher preparation. A few states have instituted four-year teacher preparation programs at community colleges and see them as a potential solution for staffing schools with a shortage of teachers. Reininger's previous research shows that teachers tend to work in schools near their homes, and community colleges could provide an important link to manpower in neighborhoods needing more teachers.

"We're looking at different organizational structures in these new teacher preparation programs to find out the best way to produce high-quality teachers. There's been no research on this so far, so it's too early for me to make recommendations. Exactly how community colleges can contribute to the important job of teacher preparation remains to be seen.

According to City Colleges of Chicago chancellor Wayne Watson (BS69, MA70, PhD72), community colleges have evolved to assume four roles: baccalaureate training, job training, adult education and lifelong learning. "We know who we are," he says, adding that if community colleges were not fulfilling these goals, nobody would.

"There are many socioeconomic realities that community colleges face," he says. For example, community colleges "have been asked to step up" with remedial development for students who are not prepared for college-level classes. "It is our strength and it is our weakness that we are not going to turn people away," he maintains.

Community colleges have a different cohort than private for-profit schools, which pre-select their students. In addition, many students attend community college for reasons such as to supplement university coursework or complete certificate programs. As a result, he says that graduation statistics are misleading.

In job training, community colleges not only provide programs but also work proactively to eliminate barriers to employment, says Watson, who gives the example of the disparity in the employment of African Americans in the building trades. "We are trying to knock down the doors of racism, classism and sexism that are keeping the doors closed."

"I'm working to help that institution that helped me the most," explains Watson, who himself attended community college before going on to Northwestern. "It has a good mission."
According to City Colleges of Chicago chancellor Wayne Watson (BS69, MA70, PhD72), community colleges have evolved to assume four roles: baccalaureate training, job training, adult education and lifelong learning
Photo by Jerry Lai



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By Lisa Stein