About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reforming the Community College, Part I

    I took a break from my blog over December, and I’m glad to be back at it. I am going to be writing about higher education for a while, mostly about the community college. Rather than the neglect that community colleges typically endure, lately they have been in the spotlight of reform, originating both from federal and state governments and from non-profit advocacy organizations and philanthropies. Many of the reforms target significant problems (e.g., low graduation rates) and offer reasonable remedies – for example, rethinking how colleges conduct developmental education. For some time now, I have been involved with these issues, and I would like to use my blog to reflect on current community college reform efforts, particularly those recommended in a heralded, widely circulating book that reflects years of work at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center: Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins’ Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.

    First, a very quick overview of the community college and the core issues.

    The community college is a uniquely American institution; The Economist, always primed to take a swipe at our education system, calls the community college a “magnificent” achievement. The first public community college was founded in 1901, and today there are 1150 of them spread across every state in the union. Over their history, they have been both praised and criticized for the quality of their instruction, for the support they provide their students, and for the breadth of their mission which, typically, has been broader than that of any other educational institution in the United States – from offering enrichment courses for members of their communities to providing basic English and math instruction and occupational training.

    In our time, the community college has provided access to higher education for untold millions of students; about 10 million are currently enrolled, 40% of whom are the first in their families to go to college. The community college has been called “the people’s college.”

    But the community college is burdened with challenges. To begin, it is chronically underfunded, and during economic downturns its budgets are cut, never to be fully restored when the economy bounces back. And since most community colleges are open admission, they often have more students than seats, especially for key courses, so classes are overloaded and hard to get, and student progress is stalled. For all the positive things their students bring to community colleges, those students, on average, come from less affluent families and school districts, so might need additional academic assistance. (Some colleges in poor areas place over 80% or more of their students in remedial English or math.) Many students are older, have family obligations, and cannot attend full time. Those students who are first generation college goers might lack knowledge of how higher education works, details about financial aid, the routines of class selection and enrollment – and have limited social networks to help them with all this. For a host of reasons – some within their sphere of responsibility, some not – many colleges have a difficult time responding to these multiple student needs.

    Community colleges have done quite well in opening their doors to prospective students, but done less well in retaining them. Approximately 30% of community college students complete a degree or credential in four years. That is a dreary statistic. It should be noted however that while the majority of students upon entry do say they want to complete a certificate or degree, many, in fact, shift to shorter-term goals in response to personal needs, family demands, or opportunities in the job market. Here are several examples. 

    A man in his early twenties, a high school dropout with past addiction problems, entered an electrical construction program and over his first year got absorbed in school, developed some literacy and numeracy and trade skills, and began to see himself in a different light. He quit before completing his occupational certificate to join the navy where he could continue his education, clear his debts, and have a potential career before him. A woman with two children already had a low-level job in the fashion industry, and she entered a fashion program to take four or five courses that built sufficient skills to get a better job in her company. Both of these people would be recorded as dropouts. It is also the case that approximately 60 percent of community college students attend more than one school, so we won’t get a complete picture of their postsecondary experience by focusing on their exit from the initial college.

    Still, the community college has to do better with retaining and graduating its students. In my next blog, I will sketch out some of the major efforts to attain that goal. 

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