The Road That Should Not Be Taken

I must confess to a certain bias in the discussion of the community college baccalaureate. I am one of the few individuals who has worked at two institutions -- Utah Valley State College and West Virginia University-Parkersburg -- that have left the ranks of true community colleges in order to expand their mission to include baccalaureate degrees.

January 17, 2005

I must confess to a certain bias in the discussion of the community college baccalaureate. I am one of the few individuals who has worked at two institutions -- Utah Valley State College and West Virginia University-Parkersburg -- that have left the ranks of true community colleges in order to expand their mission to include baccalaureate degrees.

While my own engagement in this process at Utah Valley was marginal, I was deeply involved as the president's assistant in helping to gain the West Virginia legislature's acceptance of this new type of "community college." Indeed, at this time I was one of the concept's strongest advocates. I saw, both in Provo, Utah, and Parkersburg, a great many place-bound individuals who simply could not uproot their families and sacrifice their jobs to attend a traditional four-year college. These individuals, disproportionately women, were excluded from positions of significant leadership in their communities for want of an institutional certification of many skills they already possessed.

But as the number of community colleges debating four-year degrees has increased, and the number of programs offered at some campuses has grown as well, I have become steadily less enthusiastic about the entire concept of an "upward extension" community college.

It is not that these institutions lack a faculty competent to the task. Community college faculty members are increasingly being employed from strong universities and often hold a terminal degree. Nor has it anything to do with the inherent ability of the students. A comparison of associate and bachelor's nursing graduates and their success on state license examinations puts to rest any notion that there is some inherent intellectual shortcoming common to community college students that rends them unfit to pursue the baccalaureate. And that's certainly confirmed by my own experience teaching at colleges and universities in four different Carnegie classifications.

The dilemma is one of simple equity, and equity, along with access, is the foundation of what so many loosely call, but rarely describe in any detail, as the "community college ideology."

The problem is this: within the social structure of the baccalaureate-granting community college are two distinct sectors of students: those whose drive and ambition extends no further than a job that requires two years of postsecondary preparation and those who desire to work in a field that requires a baccalaureate degree. Helping the first group of students, regardless of the reasonableness of their need, will come directly at the expense of the other -- the group with the most at risk.

I have been shocked, as a scholar of community college history, at how many major decisions about two-year institutions have been made over time without a solid basis of research. And the case of community colleges seeking to justify their offering baccalaureate degrees is no different. In no state that currently has authorized one or more community colleges to offer a baccalaureate program has there been a serious study about the impact of this decision on access or equity.

Given the lack of study, the speed with which the change has been made, and the fact that the impetus to change often came from the legislature and not the community ostensibly to be served, it would seem reasonable to conclude that it all boils down to prestige. Just as every Research II university president dreams of the day her or his university becomes a Research I, so now do community college presidents dream of joining the ranks of the Carnegie system's Baccalaureate II colleges.

The pursuit of prestige is not, in itself, a bad thing. It motivates individuals to strive for excellence. But the pursuit of prestige for some often comes at the direct expense of the many. And such is the case when a community college adds a baccalaureate program.

Unless these institutions are willing at abandon the long-standing American tradition of charging a uniform tuition fee for all credit hours (regardless of level), the few students who enroll in the small handful of fourth-year baccalaureate offerings in such fields as criminal justice and radiologic technology at St. Petersburg College will be subsidized by other students. And the harsh realities of attrition -- which plague senior institutions trying to muster students to fill their required advanced courses -- will hit community colleges with no less force. It is this attrition, over which the colleges have very little control, that will compel B.A.-offering community colleges to heavily subsidize their low-enrollment classes by enrolling 35 students in English 101 or 70 students in Sociology 101 and having these courses taught by adjuncts.

Indeed, as the initial enthusiasm and pent up demand for these baccalaureate programs wanes on community colleges (and that could come quickly in such small communities as Parkersburg and Provo), this subsidy -- and the inequity that it reflects -- will only grow greater.

Fortunately, the number of community colleges that have taken this inequitable step is still small, and the damage has been minimal, even during a period of relative fiscal constraint. But it will be little short of miraculous if community colleges -- including those offering baccalaureate degrees -- do not feel the state budget axe in the coming years as state budgets are literally bankrupted by the costs of Medicaid and homeland security.

The colleges will have no choice, apart from major program reductions, other than equally dramatic tuition increases. A disproportionate -- and inequitable -- portion of either these program reductions or tuition increases will be experienced by students who had no say in the costly expansion of their institution's decision to inch its way up the Carnegie ladder of prestige.

Despite what many community college leaders say about how their institutions can solve any local problem, that's just not the case. Inadequate state offerings of four-year degrees is just the kind of problem they shouldn't be asked to solve. Community colleges were not established to solve every social ill. Rather than punishing traditional community college students with higher tuition charges or possibly fewer course offerings for what is still an unproven public benefit, governors should make it clear to their four-year institutions that they have a mission that extends beyond the walls of their campuses and includes every citizen who can benefit from the advantages of a baccalaureate education in their respective states. They must work to smooth out the articulation process or states should develop institutions that will, all the while protecting, and not eroding, the central mission of the community college.


Robert Pedersen is an independent scholar who manages the Junior College History Web site.


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