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2013 July 22 - 12:00 am

POV: Maintaining the Magic Of the Community College

The American community college had a humble beginning in 1906 at Joliet, Ill., when only six students enrolled. But the institution grew rapidly and became a powerful movement in higher education. Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California and a national educational leader, labeled the community college as the greatest innovation of 20th century American higher education.

And who can dispute that conclusion? Today American community colleges enroll over 8 million for-credit students. Forty percent of all undergraduates enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States are in community colleges.

What accounts for this phenomenal growth? Many factors contribute to this success, but the central foundation is that the community college fulfills the American democratic ideal articulated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Until the community college came along with its basic commitment to open access, higher education was not open to all. Suddenly, the doors were open to the older student, the student with limited income, the part-time student who had to work, the high school graduate who sought a second chance.

Another key to the growth of the community college was its flexibility. For instance, although the community college was primarily a transfer institution in its beginning, it soon seized the opportunity to offer vocational training for those occupations requiring higher education of two years or less. These career technical programs expanded rapidly (e.g., nursing, auto technology, police science). Today, the community college is arguably the number one workforce development program in the nation.

Another opportunity that the community college seized was adult education. It became clear in the 20th century that many adults beyond the typical college age desperately needed higher education. The low cost and geographical proximity of the community college made it the ideal institution to meet this need. Veterans, women who had only a high school diploma, even college graduates who saw the need for specific courses flooded the campuses.

Throughout its history, the American community colleges saw societal needs and created programs to meet those needs. And that same characteristic is needed today; in fact, no institution can remain alive and vital unless it is constantly open to innovation and change.

A perfect illustration of what happens to an institution that fails to change is the American automobile industry in the last half of the 20th century. Content with its preoccupation with large, gas-consuming cars, the domestic automobile industry failed to meet the public demand for smaller, more efficient cars. As a result, Japanese and German auto manufacturers met this public need and America’s auto giants such as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler moved toward bankruptcy. Fortunately, these domestic manufacturers have reversed the previous trend, but not after a huge loss of sales, profits, and thousands of American jobs.

So the lesson for community colleges is to continue its history of flexibility and change in confronting the challenges of today. Someone might resist this suggestion given the reduced financial resources. But often the climate of financial stress is the exact time when change can occur. As Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, once aptly stated, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Although the challenges are many, I want to highlight two important situations confronting American community colleges and offer some suggestions on how to confront them. Because of my recent experience as Chancellor of California community colleges, I will cite examples from this state.

The first challenge is to improve student success in our colleges. Open access is fundamental to our nature, but admitting students is only the first step. We must make every effort to enable students to reach their goals, whether those goals are transferring to a four-year institution, completing a career technical certificate, or simply completing a course designed to improve their jobs or lives.

Fortunately, no goal has seized the imagination of our community colleges in recent years more than student success. The American Association of Community Colleges has led the way with its 2012 report titled “Reclaiming the American Dream.” Movements on improving student success have sprung up in almost every state.

For instance, in California we formed a statewide student success task force in 2011 and, after careful study, presented 22 recommendations. This report called for bold action including legislation, adoption of rules and regulations by the Board of Governors, and the implementation of best practices on all college campuses. A student success scorecard is now in place on the 112 community colleges in California, so that each college can measure its progress in improving student success. It is essential that this drive toward greater student success become part of the permanent fabric of all community colleges.

The second crucial challenge facing community colleges is to improve transfer to four-year universities. Too often community college students transfer to universities only to discover that some of their units are not transferable. Universities in the same state frequently vary in their acceptance of these units.

The unfortunate outcome is that the students lose time to a degree at a considerable personal cost. Furthermore, the state has to underwrite the cost of these additional units. In a time of reduced financial resources, we need to take forceful action to avoid this waste of student and public funds.

And I am convinced that in most cases this transfer issue can best be solved by legislative action. To try to negotiate this solution by discussion between individual colleges and universities takes an inordinate amount of time and results in a patchwork of agreements that varies widely from community colleges to universities. On the other hand, when governors and legislators fully realize the terrific cost in this inefficiency, they can be motivated to take action.

Let me illustrate. In 2009, we introduced a bill in the California State Senate that accomplished much greater ease of transfer. Senate Bill 1440 simply required the following: All of California’s 112 community colleges would create a transfer associate degree that was no more than 60 units in length.

The general education requirements at the community college would conform to the general education curriculum of the California State University. All the 23 campuses of California State University would accept these units. The California State University would require no more than 60 additional units
for a student to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Once the California legislature recognized the wisdom of such an action, the bill was easily passed and signed into law.

Some states have gone even further. For example, Florida has common course numbering. In other words, English 100 at Miami Dade College is the same as English 100 at the University of Florida and Florida State University. Frankly, this is an idea whose time has come. To enlist the support of pubic officials such as leading legislators and governors is key to its success. The result will be to elevate the role of community colleges in higher education and serve thousands of our students.

These two challenges simply call upon American community colleges to exercise the flexibility that has always characterized us. We can be justifiably proud of our heritage; it is thrilling to be part of such a dynamic institution. And by being open to change, we can both maintain and enhance the magic of the American community college.

Jack Scott became the 14th Chancellor of the California Community Colleges System in January 2009 after serving two terms in the California State Assembly and two terms in the state Senate. He’s a former community college president and chancellor emeritus of Pasadena City College. This article is the continuation of a series being authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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