Pressing Our Advantage – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Unexpectedly, community colleges actually seem to be in a pretty good place right now.

I say “unexpectedly” because I had just about concluded that the community-college movement, which began in earnest in the 1960s, had entered its final phase and that comprehensive community colleges would eventually become all but extinct. Evidence to support that belief abounded — including frequent criticisms in the media of our low-graduation rates and public denigration of community colleges by those who ought to know better. Add to that the national trend of two-year institutions attempting to morph into something “more,” whether by offering one or two bachelor’s degrees or simply dropping the word “community” from their name.

Now, however, it seems that community colleges are once again on the upswing. Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has, like her recent predecessors, singled out the two-year sector for praise, referring to community colleges in a recent speech as a “uniquely American national asset.” Even more encouraging: A new survey by the nonpartisan think tank New America found that a majority of Americans — despite having “mixed feelings” about higher education over all — nonetheless have a favorable impression of community colleges.

It strikes me that those of us who value two-year colleges and believe deeply in their mission have a rare opportunity to strengthen them and solidify their place in the academic landscape. To accomplish that, however, we must take specific, concrete steps:

Get our house in order. In the fall of 2012, I wrote about a number of scandals then plaguing community colleges. Since that time, nothing much has changed. Rarely a month goes by, it seems, without some new story of corruption, financial chicanery, or administrative malfeasance on a two-year campus.

That embarrassing financial history has to change if community colleges are to thrive in the future. In this era of instantaneous, viral news via cable television and social media, we cannot continue to survive such blows to our collective integrity, nor can we long endure the very real damage done to students, faculty members, and staff employees affected by those controversies.

One step toward positive change would be for community colleges across the country to get serious about developing — from within — the leaders who will one day become our deans, vice presidents, and presidents. In my experience, most faculty and staff members who are promoted to administrative positions at two-year colleges have had little if any leadership training. Meanwhile, for our senior-management positions, we continue to bring in “hired guns” who too often have no real agenda other than enhancing their résumés before moving on to the next big job.

We should focus instead on identifying people already on the campus who have the requisite skill set — along with an abiding love for the institution itself and the community-college mission — and then work to develop them into our future leaders.

Get serious about shared governance. Another step in the right direction would be to create governance structures that foster collegiality, consensus, and shared responsibility while establishing appropriate checks and balances.

Unfortunately, as my colleague Beth Jensen and I observed several years ago in Academe magazine, most community colleges don’t do shared governance well. I’ve worked at seven two-year campuses and visited dozens more, and I’ve yet to find one that employs a true shared-governance model.

Some are trying, and that is commendable. But too many others aren’t. Or worse, they’re faking it — they have something they call “shared governance,” but it’s really just old-fashioned, top-down leadership filtered through a few phony committees.

Community colleges have to move beyond that failed paradigm if they hope to advance. That means, as Beth and I wrote, that administrators must cede authority and control (where appropriate) to faculty and staff members. It also means that everyone affected by a decision must play a significant role — either directly or through representatives — in making that decision.

To be effective, shared governance requires a faculty composed mostly of tenured and tenure-track professors who have the experience, authority, and job security to speak out. That brings me to the next recommendation.

Hire more full-time tenured and tenure-track professors. They are an increasing rarity at community colleges, where contingent instructors often make up well over than half the teaching work force.

As a former community-college dean, I understand the factors that have led us to this point: budgetary constraints, enrollment fluctuations, classroom-space demands. But I also know that this is simply a matter of priorities: If administrators put tenure-track hiring at the top of their to-do list (and pruned some unnecessary spending on dubious programs), they could at least make significant progress toward reversing the trend of the contingent majority.

Such a shift would produce at least two happy outcomes. First, it would strengthen shared governance, thereby holding administrators more accountable and reducing the number of high-profile scandals. And second, having more full-time professors would improve student success and graduation rates, as at least one major study has shown. That certainly couldn’t hurt our reputation.

Increase our graduation and transfer rates. Speaking of which, for all the good our colleges do, and all the good feelings surrounding them at the moment, there is no denying that our graduation rates are abysmal — between 20 and 30 percent, depending on which report you read.

There are some legitimate reasons for that, starting with the fact the most community colleges have “open door” admissions policies, meaning we admit any student with a high-school diploma or GED, regardless of their grades or test scores. It’s no surprise that many of those students come to us poorly prepared for college and struggle to do well.

It’s also true that if we focus on “completion” rates — counting students who go on to graduate from four-year institutions without actually graduating from the community college — our numbers look a lot better. Around 57 percent of the students who came through our doors go on to earn a degree from a four-year campus, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Many of our students arrive with no intent or desire to graduate from a community college — they just want to get the hours they need from us in order to move on to their four-year institution as soon as possible. I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, I think community colleges should be given more credit for the key role we play in helping those students move along and achieve their academic goals elsewhere.

That said, our graduation rates are still too low. We can do better — and many of us are doing better. My own institution, for example, increased graduation rates by 5 percentage points this year — which is far more significant than it may sound, considering how low the rates were to begin with.

Emphasize transfer and technical functions equally. The number of our students who transfer to four-year institutions is something politicians rarely bring up. When they talk about community colleges, even in a positive way, they mostly focus on our technical, “work-force development” function.

For example, in the speech I referenced above, Secretary DeVos talked only about our technical, vocational training and didn’t mention our transfer students at all. That apparent oversight — though it may seem odd to those of us who work on two-year campuses — nevertheless echoes the rhetoric of other politicians, including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

With key government officials focusing on the vocational/technical side of the community-college mission, it’s no wonder many college leaders tend to emphasize it as well, at least in public.

That’s a mistake, if we wish to continue in taxpayers’ good graces. It may be true that one reason community colleges enjoy such support right now is their well-deserved reputation for producing job-ready graduates, and that is hardly a bad thing. But we also have a great deal to offer students who wish to study, eventually, at the university level. We need to be talking about our general-education programs for transfer students just as much as our technical programs.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 46 percent of students who completed a bachelor’s degree in 2014 attended a two-year college at some point. Of those, 65 percent were enrolled for at least three semesters at a community college. That means community colleges are no longer Plan B for a plurality of students. We’re the institutions they rely on to get them started down the path toward a bachelor’s degree.

That’s a fact we should be trumpeting: Community colleges, besides shouldering the burden of preparing America’s technical work force, also play a key role in producing our next generation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people.

Stay out of politics. No doubt my final point will be unpopular with some of my colleagues, but I’m going to make it anyway, because I think it’s important: Given the huge partisan divide in our country right now, community colleges must do their best to remain above the fray.

While many public research universities exist inside blue bubbles within mostly red states, community colleges often thrive in the reddest of counties. The New America survey I mentioned earlier reveals that a significant majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, have a favorable view of two-year colleges.

That is partly, of course, due to our success at job-training, but I think it is also a result of community colleges’ having largely avoided the kinds of negative publicity affecting so many universities lately — related to disinvited speakers, on-campus protests, and controversial public statements by professors.

Fairly or not, research universities lately are viewed by a good number of Americans as indoctrination centers. Community colleges have, so far, mostly avoided that label — and we must continue to avoid it if we hope to continue enjoying the public’s confidence. We can do so by focusing on our core missions: preparing students to enter the work force and/or equipping them with the academic skills they need to succeed in upper-division, university-level courses.

Staying out of the partisan fray is not, by the way, something campus administrators should mandate of all employees. Rather, it’s a commitment that faculty and staff members should consider making on their own if they believe in the two-year mission and wish to see their colleges continue to thrive.

I don’t know what the future holds for community colleges, or for the community-college movement. But I sense that we have an opportunity right now to make ourselves more relevant than ever before. Let’s not squander it.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. He is the author of four books, including Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges and The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders (with Karl Haden). He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.