The mission of community colleges is under siege

Rick Diguette teaches English at a local college. He is also a great op-ed writer. Here is a new piece by him.

By Rick Diguette

At the large community college where I teach, we face challenges that go to the heart of our mission as a gateway institution of higher education. Although student needs have remained relatively constant over the years, today the business of effectively meeting those needs is fraught with uncertainty. That uncertainty is driven by the struggling U. S. economy and by the fact that higher education, like it or not, is a business. Community colleges across the country, not just here in Georgia, are under increasing pressure to show that capital expenditures will translate into tangible future benefits, or degrees awarded.

The educator in me knows that the number of degrees awarded tells only part of the story. Community colleges have always served a wide variety of educational needs. Our open enrollment policies have seen to that. Some argue, however, that the community college mission has always been too ambitious. On top of that, state legislatures have been sending one very clear signal in recent years: as public revenues continue to lag so will funding for public education. In this kind of climate something has to give, and what is giving is the way we admit students to our community colleges. Open enrollment, long the hallmark of the community college system, may soon be a thing of the past.

The arguments for and against open enrollment have been debated for years. Now that state legislatures have tied funding to graduation rates, however, the debate appears to be all but over. Students applying for admission to a community college will have to prove that they are ready for college, or very nearly ready. What’s so bad about that? Nothing in a perfect world, and almost everything in the real world.

Most people would agree that a recent high school graduate seeking admission to college should be ready to do college work. But what if many are not? As reported by Jason Koebler in U. S. News & World Report, last year ACT, Inc. found that only 25 percent of the 1.62 million high school graduates who took the ACT college entrance exam met the benchmarks for English, reading, mathematics, and science. The report also showed that 28 percent of those 1.62 million high school seniors failed to meet the benchmark in even one of those subjects. It’s unlikely that this year’s test results will be significantly better.

Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education, has said “that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement” (”A Quarter of ACT Takers ‘College Ready’ in Core Subjects” 17 Aug. 2011). While I understand where Secretary Duncan is coming from, this takes into account only those students still in the high school pipeline. Raising academic standards won’t help those who have already graduated with a sub-par education. Nor will this produce positive results overnight. Just as it has taken years to get where we are today, it will take years to get where we want to be.

Although community colleges receive thousands of applications for admission from recent high school graduates, many of our students are non-traditional. This classification includes students who delay entering college either by choice or out of necessity, students who must work full-time, and students supporting dependents. They have needs that no amount of standards raising at the high school level will address. Yet when they seek admission to a community college, they can now find themselves funneled into a one-size-fits-all placement process: prove they are college ready, or go elsewhere.

Where is elsewhere? It can be a vocational or technical college where admissions standards are typically easier to meet, and where students can obtain skills and certifications to enhance their status in the job market. Elsewhere can also be an adult enrichment program sponsored by a public library, community center, neighborhood church, or charitable organization. While these are options, they are not calculated to help students obtain admission to a liberal arts community college.

Everyone who teaches at a community college can tell you about a student who succeeded against almost insurmountable odds. A young Vietnamese woman whom I know arrived in Georgia three years ago at the age of 19 barely able to speak English. She had traveled here alone after convincing her father that she would get an education and use it to better the lives of others. A few weeks ago she became one of this year’s Jack Kent Cooke Scholars. The scholarship pays up to $30,000 a year and will allow her to pursue an engineering degree at Georgia Tech. That her journey in higher education began where I teach is a testament to the community college mission. But if it hadn’t been for our open enrollment policies, her dream of getting an education might still be only a dream.

In a perfect world Congress and the President would always work together, never allowing party affiliation to interfere with America’s economic recovery. State legislatures faced with a revenue shortfall would only consider cuts to education funding as a last resort. And high schools would prepare every student for college.

The real world is a far different place.

–From Maureen Downey for the AJC Get Schooled blog

54 comments Add your comment

bootney farnsworth

May 21st, 2012
6:34 am

oh Freddy, one last thing…
since your superior knowledge of higher education allows your child to go
“for free” anywhere in “the world”….

do us all a favor and share it with the rest of the class. there are a lot of good, hardworking
people out there who are in a serious bind on how to afford skyrocketing college tuition.
please share your secrets of the universe with them – I promise not to look – so they
can bask in your greatness and take a huge burden off their shoulders.

Good Mother 2?

May 21st, 2012
10:59 am

Bootney, you’re beginning to hog this blog with your constant pointless negative comments just like Good Mother used to. I too am questioning whether you really teach at GPC as you claim…like GM, you post at all hours of the work-day. Not that it matters, for this particular thread is abt. community colleges, not BF.

Warrior Woman

May 21st, 2012
12:50 pm

@d – Don’t forget that it is because schools were failing certain student groups that we have NCLB and RTTT. Schools weren’t educating students long before they were supposedly “ruined” by NCLB.

@Hillbilly D – You hit the nail on the head!


May 21st, 2012
6:27 pm

Amen Good Mother2