A Humanities Push for Community Colleges

January 14, 2008

While community colleges are known to many for their job training and practical programs, they also prepare many students for four-year degrees, and provide many new students with their first exposure to college-level humanities.

That places them, especially, in a position to benefit from grants awarded by donors such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government agency that supports programs at all levels within higher education and is the nation's largest single funder of the humanities. But, responding to a persistent gap between the number of grant applications received from community colleges as opposed to four-year and research institutions, the endowment has announced more flexibility for two-year colleges seeking Challenge Grants.

The grants, which are not limited to community colleges, offer long-term support for research, facilities and public education projects in the humanities that have secured matching funds from private donors. To make the grants more attractive to community colleges, the endowment will allow for more flexibility in the way they're offered to two-year colleges, such as adjusting the grant period or ratio of matching funds. Currently, a typical first-time grant will offer federal funds ranging from $30,000 to $1 million over four years, with the requirement that the college raise three times the amount from private donors.

NEH chairman Bruce Cole announced the change at a speech at Palm Beach Community College in Boca Raton, Fla., on Saturday. "One of the things that I’m very interested in is the democratization of the humanities, and ... reaching as many citizens as possible," he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

According to the endowment, the number of projects it has funded benefiting community colleges and their faculty members has increased over 35 percent in the last five years -- a 120-percent increase in funding. Over the past 10 years, that translates to over 150 projects totaling $10.3 million. But the gap is still wide: 72 grants were awarded to two-year colleges or individual teachers in the past five years (out of 584 applications) compared with 2,476 projects funded at four-year institutions (out of 14,446 applications). While the numbers could reflect multiple grants to the same college, they remain wildly out of proportion with the relative numbers of each type of institution. What accounts for the difference?

"[U]nlike colleges and universities, [community colleges] may not have the large development offices and the grant-writing shops, so it’s harder for them to do that, obviously, a little harder for them to raise money," Cole said, also noting that communicating the opportunities available was also an important factor.

Besides the Challenge Grants, there are several other programs that support humanities education and research at two- and four-year colleges. One, Landmarks of American History and Culture: Workshops for Community College Faculty, is open exclusively to two-year institutions. It sends instructors to historical sites for one-week workshops in an effort to enrich their teaching in introductory humanities courses. Other grants support humanities research and public presentations at all types of colleges.

"I think it really doesn’t make sense that community colleges aren’t taking more advantage of NEH grants. I think maybe they need to know more about the fact that they are available and can be applied for," said Esther Schwartz-McKinzie, the director of the Paul Peck Humanities Institute at Montgomery College, in Rockville, Md. The Peck Institute was founded through a 1998 NEH grant, which she said continues to support internship and fellowship partnerships with the Smithsonian Institution as well as a speaker series.

"I have seen the paperwork for the original grant, and it’s literally just reams and reams of documents, so it was an amazing project to apply for the grant and get all of the support that we needed," Schwartz-McKinzie said. "I imagine that making it less onerous would be a good thing, and I hope that the NEH really does a good job of letting people know it might not be as out of reach as you think."

She added that the endowment “did a nice job” making presentations at the Community College Humanities Association conference she's attended. “... I can think of several panels where NEH people were talking, and we really had the sense that if we wanted to apply, there was someone we could call and our questions could be answered, and they emphasized that they give feedback during the process ...,” she said.

Even if getting the word out remains part of the problem, the difference may still lie in community colleges' sense of mission.

“There are major efforts made by work force development and other agencies that are just much more visible, much more aggressive in terms of funding community college programs,” said David Berry, the executive director of the CCHA, which also receives NEH funds. He suggested that the traditional function of teaching core subjects and the humanities can be overshadowed by those concerns.

“In some schools, that takes precedence, and I think [we need] more of a balance between the collegiate function and the workforce development function of the community college.”

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