Finally! The Current Administration Supports Community Colleges

The education policies of the current administration have disappointed me more than encouraged me, because the emphasis has shifted from preK-12 educational excellence to postsecondary support.  The truth is, no one really knows how to fix K-12 education.  No one asks the teachers and parents, either, but that’s not the point here.  Finally, the Obama/Duncan team has rolled out the beginnings of a plan to stimulate successful completion rates of community college students.  This is an area of education that has traditionally been all but ignored, and I applaud this administration in its efforts.  As a political policy, I think the Obama administration has offered too little too late, as I suspect President Obama will have a very difficult time being re-elected, and the focus on community colleges will become a legacy.  The question is how sustainable the legacy will be.

Click over to the link below.  This is the opening of a summit that is actually all-inclusive in its stakeholder foundation.  This statement gives some excellent statistics and voices several historical concerns of community college supporters.

Many very bright people I know started their postsecondary education at community colleges.  The educational experience in these two-year schools is as good as the courses taken in the first two years at almost any four-year institution.  The differences are that community college tuition is usually a fraction of the traditional college tuition, yet community college students tend to have more opportunities for support with individual needs, be they academic, social/emotional, or vocational.  The quality of instructors and professors is comparable to traditional colleges, but there is a tendency among academics to look down on them because the focus of community colleges is the student, not research.  That does not mean that community college professors don’t do research; it just means that the institutions value teaching over research.  Especially for low-income students, the community college allows access to postsecondary courses that are usually transferable to four-year colleges.  However, too many four-year institutions–unless they have a direct agreement with the community college–accept only a portion of the community college credits the student earned.  Why this occurs baffles me, as the materials used and topics covered are the same.  There is even disagreement in the research on transitions from community colleges to four-year institutions as to why credits are often ignored.

The point is that the Obama/Duncan team have put the community colleges in the spotlight for the first time since the late 1960s.  Because community colleges are supported by both state and local tax dollars, students do not necessarily have to take SATs before being accepted.  Many community colleges are open to anyone who wants to attempt a college education.  With SAT fees increasing faster than gasoline prices (yes, I’m probably exaggerating), the entrance exams are often too costly for many students, meaning that scholarship funds to four-year institutions may not be accessible.  (But SAT prices should be another blog’s topic, so no more about them here.)

Interestingly, it is not just low-income students who attend community colleges as a prelude to four-year institutions.  I have met many people over the past ten years who hold advanced degrees (usually doctorates) and encourage their own children to attend community college first.  Two reasons: low tuition, and the guarantee of admission to a local state university upon successful (3.0 or better GPA) completion of two years of requisite courses (usually without having to take the SATs, which predict only freshman year success anyway).  Another note of interest: students who attend community college with the intent of transitioning to the affiliated four-year schools generally do not earn a degree.  These students are, however, counted as part of the 25% of students successfully completing two-year programs, as mentioned in the US Department of Education’s blog, linked above.  That means that, despite the fact that community college education is cost-effective and courses are comparable to those of four-year institutions, there continue to be unknowns about why 75% of community college students drop out.

Despite treatment as postsecondary education’s step-children, much energy has been put into researching the reasons for such poor completion rates among community college students–possibly more than research available on dropout from traditional colleges.  Community college attrition has not been a focus of mine, so I am unable to address what issues or characteristics are attributed to these institutions’ dropouts.  However, I have either served on or chaired enough dissertations regarding community college attrition to have a feel for some of the problems–or at least what some of the problems are not.  Cost is not an important factor; neither are academic support, vocational counseling, class availability, or faculty.

Because I am a staunch supporter of lifelong learning, the problems of retention among community colleges is interesting to me.  Because I believe community colleges are an excellent resource for individuals who are either earning a two-year degree or planning on continuing to a four-year institution, I am in full support of federal funding to research the causes of both retention and attrition in community colleges.  This makes a lot more sense to me than infusing education funds into postsecondary programs whose efficacy is unknown.  Selfishly, I also feel that learning more about attrition from two-year colleges might shed some light on dropout among junior and senior year high schoolers.  It might also inform four-year colleges about their freshman and sophomore attrition rates.  Perhaps the four-year institutions’ student support programs are not as effective for freshmen and sophomores as they believe.  The community college is in the perfect place to inform consumers of both secondary and post-secondary institutional attrition.

Finally!! An Obama/Duncan education plan I can feel good about!