Questioning Assumptions

Community college leaders say their campuses can do better, rather than focusing on outside forces that are buffeting them.
September 26, 2011

NEW YORK -- When big thinkers get together to talk about community colleges, they typically focus on external forces buffeting the sector, like budget cuts, swelling enrollments and political pressure caused by the “college completion” agenda. What community colleges actually do can get lost in the shuffle.

Bucking this trend was a meeting Friday at the City University of New York Graduate Center, during which community college leaders talked about how to better teach their students, and how to replicate successes at individual campuses. Dubbed "Reimagining Community Colleges," the invitation-only event was hosted by leaders of CUNY, which is opening a new community college here next year.

Several speakers said community colleges must work harder to improve their remedial education offerings, rather than bemoaning the poor preparation of students when they arrive on their campuses.

The sector needs to take more responsibility for designing effective remedial tracks that match up with 21st-century career paths, said Paul Attewell, a professor of sociology and urban education at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, agreed. He said that many community colleges have failed to respond to budget cuts with innovative solutions.

“Too many community college structures look pretty much like they did 20 years ago,” Bumphus said.

The conference featured successful teaching approaches and degree programs that have helped community college students get to graduation, like CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. And there was widespread agreement that community college leaders -- including the more than 50 presidents in attendance -- should seek better incentives for faculty members, like rewarding good teachers and innovators with compensation and tenure.

When asked what was the most important fix for remedial education, the audience, using classroom clickers, voted overwhelmingly for “team teaching” and related faculty innovations.

“We have not thought enough about faculty and teaching,” said Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, adding that most structural reforms at community colleges “haven’t really penetrated the classroom.”

Conspicuously absent during the meeting were complaints about state budget cuts. Tight times are here for a while, speakers said, so community colleges need to lean on innovation rather than waiting for better budgets to return.

More money isn’t always a good thing, said Victor M.H. Borden, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. An infusion of cash can lead to the addition of new programs, but not always better ones, Borden said. Money is obviously important, he said, but lean times can spur innovation and needed program cuts.

In addition to challenging conventional wisdom about money woes, several participants were skeptical about aspects of the completion agenda, which is driving much of the policy maker and foundation interest in the sector.

Sandi E. Cooper, a professor of history at the College of Staten Island and chair of the CUNY Faculty Senate, said community college leaders should push back on pressure to graduate students in a “compressed” amount of time, such as the three-year time frame used by the federal government to determine graduation rates at two-year colleges.

“What we need is more time,” Cooper said.

Borden challenged that assertion, saying that while it may be fine for some students to take longer to earn degrees, that approach isn’t good on a macro level. For most students, the more time they spend in college, the greater the odds that “something will happen in their lives that will prevent them from” earning degrees.

One panel tackled the ambitious goals of the college completion push, such as President Obama’s call for five million additional community college graduates by 2020, with a big name in higher education admitting that he’s not a fan of such targets.

“It’s a mistake,” said William Bowen, a professor of economics and public affairs and former president of Princeton University. “Let’s not worship a number pulled out of the sky.”

During the meeting several faculty members spoke up to defend their continuing efforts to improve teaching at community colleges. "We're working on pedagogy in the bathroom," one professor said. "This is our life."

Specific community college programs featured at the meeting included:

  • The Statistics Pathway (Statway) program from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which seeks to bring researchers and faculty members together to develop a “continuous improvement process” for teaching subjects like remedial math. So far 19 community colleges are participating in the project, the rolling results of which will be open source.
  • The American Association of Community Colleges’ Voluntary Framework of Accountability, a system that will offer benchmarks for community colleges to track student progress and completion data. The effort, which is still in development, seeks to create “appropriate” accountability measures that fit community colleges and tell a broader story than graduation rates. AACC anticipates a roll-out of the framework in early 2012.


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