• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



The gaps between community colleges and four-year institutions.


October 19, 2014

On Friday I attended a statewide meeting of public colleges and universities dealing with transfer issues. The meeting consisted primarily of faculty from two-year and four-year public colleges, although a few stray administrators (hi!) managed to sneak past security. The goal of the meeting was to have the two-year folk and the four-year folk come to agreement on what the first two years of each of several different majors should look like, so students could choose courses at community colleges with confidence that the courses will count towards their eventual major. The purpose of the meeting was to identify, and knock down, arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.

It was one of those “why haven’t we done this before?” ideas that brought to the surface a host of issues that nobody really anticipated.

I sat in on the poli sci discussion, since that’s my academic background. (The poli sci professor from my campus was also there.) It quickly became clear that everybody teaches Intro to American Government, everybody takes it as a transfer course, and that was all we needed to say about that.  It was ubiquitous and uncontroversial, so that was easy.

After that, though, things got more complicated.

The most basic issue was that the four-year schools didn’t agree with each other. To the extent that community colleges are supposed to mirror the first two years of four-year curricula, it would be nice if the four-year curricula matched.  I can’t say I was surprised, but it did strike me as a skipped step.

Some of the discussion reflected the quirks of the discipline.  Political science in America usually consists of four or five subfields -- American, International Relations, Comparative, Theory, and sometimes State/Local, Judicial,or Administrative/Policy -- that don’t talk to each other very much.  (Even “theory” is divided into “formal” and “normative.”)  Each subfield typically gets its own introductory course. That means there’s no consensus on what a generic “Intro to Political Science” would look like.  Would it be a theoretical overview? A sampler platter? A “topics” course in which each instructor would choose a substantive emphasis?  In the absence of consensus about content, many of the four-year schools wouldn’t take the Intro course in transfer. I can’t blame them. It would be like an “Intro to Languages” class.  Would it be three weeks each of Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Farsi?  Or would it be a linguistics class?  The former makes no sense, and the latter really needs its own name. “Spanish 101” makes a lot more sense than “Languages 101” would.

But the more embarrassing part was the courses the four-year schools expected community colleges to teach, that most just don’t. Several of the cc faculty let it be known, with varying degrees of exasperation, that they were one-person shows. In several cases, even that one person has divided loyalties, typically splitting time between poli sci and history.  No one person can cover everything.  Sometimes adjuncts can fill in gaps, but if the enrollments aren’t there, even that won’t save you.  So being told that, say, “Intro to Comparative Politics” would transfer successfully isn’t all that useful if the class rarely runs.

The upside, in a sense, was seeing that so many colleges are in the same boat. What started out as a discussion of curricular matching quickly became a discussion of resources.  Without the resources to staff, and run, a wider range of classes, it simply won’t happen. That will leave transfer students with relatively little to bring with them.  What manifests as a curricular issue is really, at its base, a resource issue.  If we’re serious about mirroring curriculum, we need parity of resources. Unsurprisingly, much of the large-group discussion at the end of the day consisted of community college people talking about budgets. 

If this becomes the unintended avenue through which we finally start talking seriously about per-student funding parity, I’m all for it. That wasn’t the stated goal of the meeting, but we won’t meet the stated goal until we acknowledge that classes aren’t either free or infinitely fungible. 

The other option is to drop courses entirely and go entirely with competencies.  That’s another discussion altogether, and one that did not come up in this context.

Yes, by all means, let’s knock down arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.  We just need to be willing to acknowledge barriers beyond what the meeting initially had in mind.


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