Father James F. Keenan, S.J.

Community colleges: restoring the promise

June 6, 2018

Any article on community colleges begins with the promise that such colleges offer, especially to the working class. These colleges are local and affordable and offer a passage to a four-year college degree.  

The math is simple: tuition and fees for full-time enrollment at an in-state, public, two-year college averaged about one-third the cost at a public, four-year institution and one-tenth the cost at a four-year private school. The promise of community colleges is one thing, the reality is another.  
Make no mistake: community colleges are very popular. Nearly half of all post-secondary students are enrolled at a community college. Though some students want simply the two-year degree for vocational and other reasons, data shows that more than 80 percent of these students aim to transfer into and complete a degree at a four-year college or university. 

Unfortunately, few successfully jump from a two- to a four-year program. Three major reasons conspire to ruin the promise. 

First, community college students are hard-working people from a wide spectrum of the American working class. While they study, they work, some even full-time. 

For instance, full-time students at a community college are twice as likely to work full-time as full-time students in public and private nonprofit four-year schools. Their work and family responsibilities often force them to make course selections based on when they are free to attend a class. 

Moreover, some did not receive an adequate education to prepare them for college and need to take remedial courses in order to study effectively in an institution of higher learning.

 Recognizing those needs often requires having an adviser who can help such students build foundational study habits. That mentoring is rarely present at a community college. Why? This leads to the second reason our students are robbed of the promise: overworked and grossly underpaid adjunct faculty.

Yet here we must be very careful. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has noted, adjunct teachers are as effective at teaching as are tenured faculty. Studies show, in fact, that in many instances, adjunct faculty are even more dedicated and successful in instructing students, especially at major universities where they have greater security, renewable contracts, health-care benefits and, most important, an office. 

Most community colleges, however, do not provide their adjunct faculty with such stability. 

In many instances, adjunct faculty at community colleges have profoundly challenging work lives, running from one school to another, maintaining contracts at two, three or even four different local institutions. They are without health-care benefits, job security or office space. 

Community colleges are affordable partly because their faculty are paid, in many instances, piecemeal, one to two courses at a time. It is not that these adjunct faculty don’t want to advise their students, they just don’t have the time or place or energy to do it. 

The third reason why the promise of community colleges is broken is the worst: When students are finally ready to make the leap from a community college to a four-year school, the receiving institution often contests the student’s state-approved courses. This rejection translates into a significant loss of time and money because students have to return to the community college again and again, usually without advisement, as they find a way to make their courses count. Many repeat the cycle over several semesters.

In a national sample of such students, only a little more than half the receiving institutions accepted all or most of the credits. One in 10 four-year institutions accepted virtually no credits. 

Nonetheless, these students are resilient. The same study noted that students whose credits were picked up by four-year institutions matched the graduation rates of those students who began their education at that institution. Make universities mindful of the working class, respond to their claims, and these survivors of an understaffed and underfunded system are able to realize the promise that was made.

Still, it is time for America to attend to its community colleges: their students and their faculties. While we are at it, we might ask the more successful four-year public and private colleges what they could do to restore the promise once made to America’s working class.


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