A New Kind of Community College

The Obama administration – along with many in the opinion elite – is looking to the nation’s two-year community colleges as the primary vehicle to ramp up future Americans’ level of post-secondary educational attainment. A down payment in this direction are the billions of dollars of direct and indirect community college aid included in the administration’s “stimulus bill.” However, before we get carried away with enthusiasm for community colleges as the best place to extend the frontier of higher education, there’s a question to consider: how well have these institutions actually succeeded in their mission to provide an inexpensive but effective college education to our millions of academically under-prepared high school graduates?
A cursory look at the data is not encouraging. Although 41 percent of America’s college-bound students enter community colleges each year , only 28 percent of this cohort actually complete their studies and earn a degree , an even more dismal outcome than that displayed at the nation’s baccalaureate colleges, where 56 percent manage to graduate . These depressing statistics haven’t dampened the general consensus favoring support of community colleges because proponents appear to believe that college “access” trumps successful college completion and that “some college is better than none.” Refuting the latter point, U.S. community college non-graduates have only marginally higher earnings and lower unemployment rates than high school graduates and do far less well than their counterparts that manage to complete their studies .
The disappointing outcomes at community colleges are to some extent hard-wired into four aspects of their design. These institutions are proudly and aggressively “open admissions” which means that there are no academic criteria to get in except, in most places, a high school diploma. They are indifferent to the extent to which their students are diverted from their studies by work or other outside obligations, convinced that such distractions are an unavoidable and immutable aspect of “nontraditional” student profiles. Their abundant array of courses (including ones for English and math remediation that a majority of their students test into and often fail) are taught primarily by low-paid part-time faculty who have little time for interaction with students beyond classroom hours. Finally, community colleges view their mission in strictly vocational terms. They offer majors geared to every occupation that their “environmental scanning” process identifies as having job openings, while slighting the kind of general education offered by baccalaureate institutions that may contribute more to post-collegiate success than narrow (and quickly obsolete) occupational skill sets. While educators and the media tend to be scornful of the academic pretensions of proprietary, often on-line, “universities” like Phoenix and DeVry, the public community colleges are not operationally very different or in their academic results any more successful.

Given all of this, it is heartening to learn that the City University of New York, which operates six community colleges with over 58,000 students, will soon be launching a new alternative “experimental” community college prototype, the New Community College Initiative. According to CUNY sources, preliminary specifications for this institution – probably to be located in Manhattan – confront and attempt to correct for many of the problematical features of the traditional community college model: insufficient student commitment in motivation or time, haphazard guidance and instructional support, and academically narrow, insufficiently rigorous curricula.
Tempering customary open admissions, student applicants will have to submit to an interview with a counselor who will review their academic qualifications and motivation. To improve the odds of academic success, students will have to attend full-time, taking academic courses in their first year and structured internships in their second. Further, they will be intensively counseled and mentored and taught primarily by permanent faculty able to provide greater academic support in and outside of class. Finally, moving a long way from the mainly vocational orientation of typical community colleges, the new CUNY campus plans to offer a strong general education foundation and a very limited number of majors. These are to be designed primarily to prepare students for generic career fields and transfer to baccalaureate degree programs rather than for entry into specific occupations.
CUNY may be motivated in mounting this venture by the less than stellar academic outcomes at its existing conventional community colleges. Five of them have much lower graduation rates than the New York state average (which includes the State University of New York’s twenty schools) of 23 percent , ranging from 7.5 percent (Bronx CC) to 13.6 percent (LaGuardia CC). Only Kingsborough in Brooklyn at 21.8 percent does almost as well as the state, and even that parameter means that 80 percent of its students are failing to complete their studies .
Predictably, CUNY’s innovative community college blueprint has come under attack by defenders of the status quo. An article in Inside Higher Education cites the misgivings of the director of a national survey of community college students who disparages its proposed more rigorous admissions screening and full-time study requirement. She implies that this amounts to a form of academic “creaming” or “[serving] a small portion of students who are going to succeed anyway…” Her critique and others like it have put CUNY’s community college planners somewhat on the defensive, but they shouldn’t be. As a former provost of the State University of New York, I got to see firsthand the consequences of allowing underprepared students to enter the collegiate academic stream without the intense personal commitment or external support they would need to succeed. “Come on board” followed by “sink or swim” is by no means a liberal policy. It diverts scarce public educational resources that could be devoted to potentially more successful students and it is unfair to its putative beneficiaries, who leave school academically dispirited and financially worse off.
Indeed, there is simply no basis for the accusation that CUNY’s institutional blueprint amounts to “creaming.” The new school will still be open admissions, but both its students and the institution will have a clear understanding of the academic commitment required. Who could quarrel with giving its students more counseling and having them taught by full-time faculty? The curricular emphasis on general education and a more limited choice of vocational subjects will only give its graduates more options in an ever-changing job market.
Most significantly, CUNY should neither apologize for, nor back away from, the new college’s full-time study requirement. Its academic value is confirmed by a recent Public Agenda report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which unequivocally fingers outside work and other distractions as the leading causes of college dropouts: “The number one reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time and, despite their best efforts, the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll.” And the requirement’s financial impact is significantly offset by New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program which covers the entire cost of tuition for low-income students.
Although CUNY’s proposed experimental community college is still only on the drawing boards, and its long term prospects are grounded more in theory than experience, it represents a refreshing departure from the prevailing approach to entry level post-secondary education. If the new CUNY model proves to be effective, its example might offer the nation a far stronger target for the investment of billions of additional state, local (and student) dollars than our current, five decades-old, community college “experiment” that has so far compiled an unsatisfactory record of missed opportunities and chronic academic failure.


  • Peter Salins

    Peter Salins is University Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University and director of its graduate program in public policy.

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