Community colleges step into spotlight

President Obama wants to spend $12 billion on community colleges to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020. That would fund construction, online courses and $9 billion for “challenge grants” to encourage innovation.

Smart move, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. America can’t regain its “human capital advantage” without low-cost, accessible, second-chance institutions. But two-year colleges have been ignored because “most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them.”

Obama’s initiative will help community colleges get more students to a vocational certificate or two-year degree, Brooks believes.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

No, the $12 billion will subsidize the status quo, writes Rick Hess on The American. Community colleges “may not provide the optimal platform for 21st-century job training.”

After all, community colleges maintain networks of campuses opened when the Internet was a science fiction conceit, when distance learning entailed mail correspondence, and when private providers like the University of Phoenix were a curiosity. These are teaching institutions that prefer to pay a premium to hire Ph.D.’s — even though the Ph.D. is a research degree that doesn’t have much to do with community college instruction.

Community colleges offer hope to a wildly diverse group of students, writes Donald Douglas, who teaches political science at Long Beach Community College.

Sadly, many students come to my classes unable to read. My second year teaching I had a young woman . . . who could not write a single paragraph on a page. . . . I sat her down in all seriousness and indicated that she was nowhere near college reading and writing ability. I made sure she was in touch with the appropriate staff on campus, so she’d have the remedial resources to help her succeed.

“It’s really an honor to work with such a population,” Douglas writes.

Community colleges, for all their faults, are much more flexible than four-year colleges. They’re more attuned to the local job market and more responsive to the needs of older students. We’ll get more gain for the buck at community colleges than at four-year institutions.

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  1. Hunter McDaniel says:

    So are kids being turned away from community colleges today for lack of capacity? If not, Mr. O’s proposal seems like a solution in search of a problem.

  2. Barry Garelick says:

    This particular line in David Brooks’ story caught my attention:

    “Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.”

    The message being what? That 4-year colleges aren’t doing a good job remediating? Shouldn’t a more basic question be why 4-year colleges have to do that degree of remediation at all? And why such students who need remediation are being admitted? Two year colleges then become the savior to provide such remediation. The article points out a story about a student at a community college who could barely read or write.

    Shouldn’t the more basic question be why this level of remediation is necessary at a 2-year institution let alone a 4-year? And more to the point, are there things that we should be doing in K-12 schools to reduce this level of remediation?

    Secretary of Education Duncan seems to think one solution is voluntary national standards and assessments for Math and ELA. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how the standards are written. Content specific standards by grade level for math, for example, like California has done, would be a step in the right direction. And a national exam that is a bit more challenging than the current NAEP would be another. It’s a bit hard to say what these national standards are going to do, if anything, though. The process has been a closed-door one, with no solicitation of opinion from key stakeholders, like mathematicians, parents, or teachers.

  3. thaprof says:

    You would be hard pressed to find many Ph.D.s at our local community college. Overwhelmingly, the faculty have MA degrees, and more than a few BA/BS degrees.

  4. In response to Hunter McDaniel, at the CC where I teach (with a PhD, but I don’t really love lab work), students often have to wait for 1-2 semesters to get into popular prerequisite courses. Others find themselves taking courses at times that aren’t really ideal (they have to come 15 minutes late because they can’t get off from work early, etc)in order to avoid having to wait until the course is available at a time that works for them. While I’m not a fan of the idea that everybody needs a college education, there are students who are capable and need a 2-year degree to get into nursing school, etc, but have a hard time getting into the courses that they need.