Putting the Community Into College

Some two-year institutions are introducing capstone courses, long used at four-year liberal arts colleges, to culminate the community college experience.
July 11, 2008

To significant numbers of community college students, the crowning achievement of their institutional experience includes not just an associate degree but also transfer to a four-year institution. Now, some community colleges are taking a page from the course catalogs of their liberal arts counterparts to help their students reach the next level. Capstone courses, long the final-semester conclusion of some baccalaureate programs, are beginning to take root at some community colleges as a new culmination of the two-year experience.

“Capstones are unusual at the community college level,” said Bret Eynon, executive director at LaGuardia Community College's center for teaching and learning. “Students come in and out. It’s not your typical residential experience. Still, we were interested in having a less fragmented educational experience and knowing how all the parts fit together.”

LaGuardia, part of the City University of New York, is in the process of analyzing and honing its capstone courses and the second-year experience with $2.7 million in funding from a Department of Education grant program aimed at enhancing institutions that serve a high percentage of Hispanic and low-income students. The idea of implementing capstone courses was brought to the college’s attention by its participation in a recent research project with nine other institutions sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The Integrative Learning Project had its participating institutions study and develop academic programs that help students learn in more “intentional, connected ways.” Eynon and others from LaGuardia were intrigued by the capstone courses used by many of the four-year institutions involved. For example, Philadelphia University has a transitional capstone connecting the core curriculum to its professional majors, and Salve Regina University, in Rhode Island, has a capstone reflective of the whole of the multi-disciplinary liberal arts experience.

As a result of this intercollegiate interaction, LaGuardia began to define its own capstone courses. Eynon said, before the research project, the institution had identified courses that resembled capstones but had not made them function in the true sense of their name. The two-year college now integrates these courses with an online multimedia student project called ePortfolio, according to Eynon, an idea it introduced to the Integrative Learning Project. Students in capstone courses at LaGuardia finalize open online portfolios of their academic work and reflections on their work. Additionally, students may also use this space to provide personal information, upload their résumé and state their professional goals. These portfolios, Eynon said, allow students to connect not only to the work they have already completed at the community college but also to their families and future.

“Students are very interested in using their ePortfolios, whether it’s for transfer or employment,” said Eynon of the capstone initiative’s initial success. “Still, they are most interested in showing their families. Some say their families don’t know what they’re doing in college. Now, they can show them. This is great, particularly when you have parents of first-generation [college] students.”

Capstone courses are in place for and individually tailored to the needs of every discipline at LaGuardia, according to Eynon. The course for the nursing program, for example, includes clinical experience and makes use of the students’ skills in science, health science, communication and problem solving. Another in fine arts requires a studio project relating museum research, a media project, written research and student reflection. Considering the future of these courses at LaGuardia, Eynon said a faculty-based research seminar will gather capstone-teaching professors to investigate how they can be improved. He added that the college wants to ensure that its capstone courses effectively help students make sense of their education and prepare them for their next step, either in education or for the work force. This provides preparation for the significant number of students at two-year colleges that are not looking to transfer to four-year insitutions in addition to those that are seeking to do so.

In addition to offering capstone courses for specific disciplines, other community colleges make use of capstone courses to culminate their general education programs. Such a cohesive and connected completion of the core curriculum then allows most of these students to easily transfer to four-year institutions to continue their education.

This is the case at the four-campus St. Louis Community College. Following a revision of the general education program at the college in 2003, capstone courses were introduced to bind together the knowledge and skills acquired by students. Now, all students earning the associate in arts degree will have taken a capstone course of their choice, according to Dwight Smith, vice president for academic affairs at the college’s Forest Park campus. These courses, Smith explained, are meant to ensure that students meet the college’s educational objectives for its graduates.

“I think it’s a nice introduction to the type of learning that students are expected to do at four-year institutions,” said Smith, adding that the content of the courses are up to the faculty’s creativity and interest. “That was the intent of the faculty in including these courses. It’s a culminating experience.”

Capstone courses at St. Louis Community College are just one bookend to the general education program. They can be partnered with a college introductory or cornerstone course. These courses, much like capstones, cover a wide variety of subjects. Some even make use of popular culture to draw students into the class and its academic purpose. The history professor Paul Nygard, who teaches at St. Louis's Florissant Valley campus, has an introductory class on the works of the fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. His corresponding capstone course expects students to study a mythology, some of which were used by Tolkien to create the world of The Lord of the Rings. When Nygard introduced the classes, just after the release of the popular movies based on the novels, he said their popularity among students was high. Still, he insists there should be no mistaking the use of popular culture as a sign of an easy course.

“A lot of [cornerstone and capstone] courses use popular culture,” Nygard said. “When people don’t realize what they’re doing is work, they’ll typically do a lot more of it. It’s a little stunning to some of the students because I work them like dogs.”

Though not all capstone courses are related directly to a cornerstone like Nygard’s, he said about half of the students in his capstone took his college introductory course. He added that he can see the growth of his students and see them drawing from all of their previous course work and knowledge in his capstone course. His students complete a hefty research assignment and also give in-class presentations. These academic requirements and the capstone course’s breadth are great preparation for students moving forward, he said.

“It gets them ready for what’s coming next,” Nygard said, adding that, for example, a number of the college’s students are attracted to a regarded business program at the nearby University of Missouri at St. Louis. “I contact these institutions to see what students need to be able to do to survive, and it ranges from presentations in class to being able to express oneself in the written word.”

In addition to preparing community college students for either transfer to a four-year institution or entrance in the working world, capstone courses are also being used by some colleges as a form of institutional assessment. Eynon notes that La Guardia has integrated its capstone courses and students’ ePortfolio into the college’s accreditation assessments. He added that the institution has used the Community College Survey of Student Engagement to judge the impact of its recent academic changes. Nygard also said that capstone courses at St. Louis Community College are being used as an assessment tool. The semester-long courses are better-suited for assessment, he said, adding that it provides the chance for a lot more one-on-one time with students.

Though capstone courses are a relatively new phenomenon at community colleges, some think their future is bright. “There’s a growing emphasis on general education,” Eynon said of the role of community colleges. “I think there’s a growing interest in [capstone courses]. As we talk about it, I see more people paying attention.”


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