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Community colleges specialize.

That’s both known and largely ignored. We shouldn’t ignore it.

They specialize in lower-division courses. In fact, in many states, those are the only courses they’re allowed to teach. The most commonly taught class at many community colleges is the first semester English Composition course. Courses like Intro to Psychology and Intro to Western Civilization are taught in large numbers every semester. They have faculty who have taught those courses every semester for decades.

As far as I know, most don’t structure the intro courses like research universities do. When I was a TA at Rutgers, the instructor of record showed up once a week to lecture to an auditorium of 300 students. The TAs handled the discussion sections. In the two-year sector, faculty teach the courses directly, without TAs. (Lab science classes often have lab assistants, though their scope of control varies from one college to another.) Meanwhile, at the community college a few miles away, students in the same course got a full professor in a class probably smaller than a TA discussion section, and they paid less for the privilege.

In a conversation this week about mission differentiation, I trotted out an argument I’ve believed for so long that I sometimes forget that other people don’t: community colleges are well positioned to be laboratories for developing the very best 100-level classes. They could be pedagogical leaders in their disciplines.

That doesn’t currently happen for a few reasons. Many sections are staffed by adjuncts who are offered far too little money and support. The full-time faculty’s teaching loads are so large that serious and sustained scholarship of teaching and learning is difficult to scale. And to the extent that the student success movement has improved delivery, success is typically measured in pass rates. The effort has been to get more students to move from F’s or W’s to C’s. That’s worth doing, but it isn’t the same thing as making the courses the best they could be.

Outcomes assessment may help, but it’s usually confined to a single institution. And even there, what’s measured is more often on the low end (how many achieved an acceptable level) than on the high end (how many hit it out of the park).

What if community colleges deliberately focused on making a few key intro courses the best they could be?

It would take some coordination across multiple colleges and disciplines, as well as some money to free up faculty time. Institutional research offices would have to be engaged. To keep things honest, some outside evaluators would have to come in from time to time. I’m envisioning, say, a half dozen community colleges focusing on Intro to Psych, another half dozen on Intro to Composition, and a third half dozen on U.S. History 1. (Substitute other highly enrolled intro courses as desired.) Over several years, each cluster of colleges would optimize their assigned class. After, say, fiveish years, they’d share the model nationally and move on to new classes.

Given their volume of sections and diversity of students, community colleges would make excellent proving grounds. The senior institutions that—let’s be honest here—often treat intro courses as afterthoughts could learn from them.

The Community College of Baltimore County did students across the country a service with the development of the Accelerated Learning Program for English. Imagine building out a system to generate similar insights across disciplines and across the country. And with community colleges taking the lead, we’d build around what works for diverse students, rather than the normative model of 18-year-olds at elite places. After all, the ALP would not have come from Harvard.

Give the process a brand name, and the courses that are blessed by it should have extra claim to transferability.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Could something like this be done?

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