Call for Equity for Community Colleges

February 11, 2008

American higher education “is not sustainable,” and risks a growing detachment from reality if it does not come to grips with the needs of community colleges and the way higher education and government consistently mistreat the sector.

That unsettling argument was put forth Sunday night in the introductory talk of the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, by Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, of the City University of New York. Mellow’s critique probably wouldn’t surprise most people who work in community colleges, but it was an unusually public rebuke for the rest of higher education at a meeting of the higher education umbrella group that represents two-year and four-year, public and private colleges.

Mellow argued that the way higher education is categorized, defined and financed have all worked to the detriment of community colleges, even as they educate nearly half of all undergraduates, and significant portions of those who will later graduate with bachelor’s degrees from four-year institutions.

“We must stop giving community colleges straw and expecting spun gold,” she said. “The fact is that what happens to community colleges affects all of higher education. As higher education leaders, we have allowed the baccalaureate and community college systems to develop separately and unequally, with tenuous points of integration and inadequate financial support."

Added Mellow: “Higher education funding and quality assessment is still premised on what are now nostalgic memories of traditional-aged, upper-middle class college students. Unless we let go of this myth and realistically face the modern demographics of the U.S. college population -- who goes and who should go to college -- the relevance and status of American higher education in a competitive, global education market will erode.”

Mellow said that for all the talk of the many different sectors and missions of higher education (public and private, Carnegie Classifications, and so forth), the reality is that there “two distinct forms of American higher education.” One consists of colleges “that select their incoming class each fall by recruiting and admitting those students who have a high probability of being able to complete their degrees.” The other form can be found in community colleges, which “embrace a radically inclusive student body,” in which they welcome all -- whatever their preparation, whatever their chances of earning a college degree.

Despite this “profound” difference, Mellow said that the two sectors are far more interconnected than those in four-year colleges tend to acknowledge. Of the 1.5 million students who earn bachelor’s degrees each year, she noted, 300,000 were formal transfers from community colleges and hundreds of thousands of others earned some credit at community colleges (sometimes after their work at a four-year institution.

Community colleges not only are producing a huge number of students, but they are doing the difficult work of preparing those who have received substandard high school educations, Mellow said. While praising as “almost miraculous” the work that community college professors do with such students, Mellow also acknowledged failures. Community colleges are able to help less than half of the 50 percent of high school graduates who need remediation to achieve high school level of work, she said.

Given the need of the American economy for more educated workers, and of four-year colleges for more students, Mellow said, it should be obvious that community colleges should be supported in any number of ways. But they aren’t, she said. Mellow noted her college’s successes -- graduation rates that are exceptionally high for the socioeconomic groups served, with placements of graduates at some of the top colleges in the country. But she said that this success is due to both time and money that many community colleges don’t have.

On money, Mellow cited a variety of figures that show inequities compared to four-year institutions. Per capita spending at public community colleges, she said, is $9,183 per student -- compared to $27,973 for four-year college students. “We are therefore funding those students most prepared to go to college at rates well above those who need the highest level of support,” she said.

Part of the problem, Mellow said, is that community colleges are judged by standards appropriate for those four-year colleges that admit only those with a good chance of graduating.

“We use outdated methods of evaluating college success,” she said, citing in particular the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS, which is central to federal data collection (and on which many state data procedures are based as well). IPEDS “asks us to presume that all students are just like those attending Princeton -- first time and full time. IPEDS assumes everyone is a credit student, requiring no remediation, who enrolls full time for their entire academic career. All of those assumptions are false. It hearkens back to a historical conception of college-going students that is no longer true,” she said.

Mellow said that these assumptions end up giving people the sense that community colleges are failing (since indeed their graduation rates are lower than those for other sectors) instead of focusing on a range of measures that would show what actually goes on at community colleges.

“Community colleges are not just the junior version of four-year colleges. To understand community college success -- or lack thereof -- we must find a new way of measuring outcomes. Everyone wants to look at graduation statistics -- and I do, too. But without other measures it subverts the real contribution of a community college,” she said.

Mellow offered this example of what’s wrong with a focus on graduation rates. “Right now we count as college students those with high school diplomas who do not have high school skills, and then criticize community colleges when those students do not graduate in three years. How about thanking them for only taking a year to teach students what they were unable to master in their 12 previous years of education?”

How to more fairly measure community colleges? “They should be measured on how well the education they provide contributes to the local and regional economy and community. Community colleges might be measured by changes in a community’s salaries, new business starts, new jobs, or increases in employee health insurance and retirement benefits associated with education. Community colleges might also be measured by advances in literacy or critical thinking, or by increases in their adult students’ involvement in their children’s school, or in civic engagement.”

Mellow also said that community colleges deserve praise, not criticism, when they successfully offer remedial education -- even if the student doesn’t reach college level or graduate. “This doesn’t imply a backing away from the standard of graduation with an associate’s degree, but it realistically incorporates the progressive reality of education that seeks to move adults ahead step-by-step,” she said. “Let’s learn to measure what matters in this context, for these people. It does matter if a community college moves an adult from reading at the 5th to the 9th grade level, or learns how to compute percentages, or develops the capacity for the intellectual problem solving necessary to get and keep a job. It’s not enough, and we cannot stop without trying to move everyone completing an associate’s degree, but each step is a real improvement for the individual and our social world.”

Mellow's talk was the meeting's Robert Atwell Lecture, named for the former president of the ACE, who was in the audience.

In an interview, Mellow said she realized that pushing these issues will be difficult, especially in the current environment in which states are bracing for budget cuts, and all sectors of higher education will be worried about their financial futures. But she said that states must not assume that it is "an either/or situation" with regard to supporting community colleges and the rest of higher education.

And when community colleges don't get on the agenda, she said, it's important to push to get them there. A special commission in New York State recently proposed a major investment in public higher education. While the funds would go to all sectors, much of the focus has not been on community colleges and their students, but on how to create research universities that might compete with a Berkeley or Michigan. Mellow said she's working on a paper for New York officials outlining the community college issues on which they may not have focused sufficiently.

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