PHOENIX -- The annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges might seem to be the last place where educators would feel a need to define just what community colleges are.
But these days, community college definitions are tricky. The associate degree as the highest degree awarded? Not true for the growing number awarding bachelor's degrees. Local students? Not true for the many campuses with international students, not to mention distance education students enrolled online -- two groups that are growing.
Commuter campus? Not when residential facilities are appearing and filling up at many campuses. Open admissions? Tell that to all the would-be nursing students who can't get into programs. With these and other changes in mind, a panel considered just what makes community colleges community colleges.
The panel was notable in part for what wasn't said. No panelist questioned the trend of community colleges offering four-year degrees. And the question-and-answer session -- which a few years ago almost certainly would have had someone criticizing the idea -- didn't. There are still plenty of community college leaders who question the trend and worry that it risks diverting focus from the students who need community colleges the most.
But there is also a sense that the trend has spread far enough and lasted long enough to be permanent. Still, even as the panel demonstrated that the associate degree can no longer define the community college (quite aside from the bachelor's degree programs, there are far more students enrolled in certificate or short-term programs and who never intend to earn a degree), speakers appeared to share a desire to stress the centrality of the associate degree to the colleges' mission.
"We seem to get more and more missions given to us," said John Rouche, director of the Community College Leadership Program of the University of Texas at Austin, in introducing the session. He recounted how one former leader of AACC once focused attention on the myriad missions (not all of them educational) given to community colleges by suggesting that "college" had become limiting and confusing as a part of institutions' names. These days in some states, the word that is disappearing is "community," as some institutions add four-year programs.
Community colleges are "morphing," said Will Holcombe, chancellor of the Florida College System, which consists of 28 institutions, 14 of which have the authority to offer at least one bachelor's program, and 9 of which have one or more such programs up and running. Florida is generally seen as the leader in the movement to offer bachelor's degrees, but Holcombe took pains to position the system (even without "community" in its name) within the community college world.
He noted, for example, that the Carnegie Classifications' new system for grouping community colleges dealt with the four-year programs by stating that the category of "primarily associate" would apply to any community college where bachelor's degrees make up fewer than 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded. For all the talk about Florida's movement into the four-year world, he noted that all of the colleges in his system are comfortably below that level.
Holcombe also noted that the bachelor's programs at Florida are "based on the associate degree" in that students apply to an associate program, and must complete it successfully before moving on. In fact, he said that the same articulation agreements govern transfer to the state universities as govern the bachelor's part of the former community colleges.
In thinking about what community colleges are, Holcombe stressed the way that states rely on them, and that they don't serve only their local areas. He noted, for example, that 58 percent of high school graduates who go on to higher education do so in the state college system, and that 45 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded by the university system go to students who started at a state college.
In addition to emphasizing the role of the associate degree, Holcombe also defined the community college by noting that it educates students who do not enroll in or succeed in other parts of higher education. For instance, he noted that 81 percent of the freshmen and sophomores in Florida's higher education system who are from minority groups enroll at the state colleges, not the universities.
And of the students in bachelor's programs at the former community colleges (last year just over 5,500, and soon to top 7,500), there are far more students over the age of 35 than under the age of 25. In other words, these are not traditional undergraduates. "These are our students," he said. "We are keeping true to our mission."
Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College, made the case for pushing on new kinds of programs and strengthening associate degree offerings simultaneously. The message seemed to be that the issue of associate degree programming vs. other programming is not an either/or choice. Thornton described the creation of Cuyahoga's Corporate College, which has two of its own campuses and offers custom-training programs for businesses, programs that aim to compete with the for-profit business training industry and that make use of the Cleveland college's job training expertise.
To attract business, the college has built facilities and purchased equipment that is more top of the line than many community colleges may be used to, and she has told faculty members that "they need to buy into new and different concepts" of instruction.
But at the same time, Thornton said, she is encouraging professors to strengthen associate degree programs.
With President Obama, state leaders and others all pushing for people to enroll in community colleges, she said that institutions must show a "return on investment" and that this is the associate degree. She said that her theme is "some college is not enough," and that colleges should not simply go along with students who say that they want to take "some courses," but should guide them toward degree programs.
She said that community colleges must stop letting students enroll "without being exposed to the idea of a degree." So that means more counseling, and a greater willingness to challenge students about their plans and how they will achieve them. "It's incumbent on us to help them navigate," Thornton said. "We have to change the mindset away from 'a course or two' ... to a degree."
And she stressed that this means taking the associate degree seriously. "We may be the last degree or only degree that students obtain," she said.