An Ambitious Agenda for Community Colleges

America’s community colleges – and there are about 1,200 of them – educate more than 10 millions people every year. Community colleges serve a myriad of needs, ranging from training to swimming to language to college courses. Most community college students hope to obtain a four-year degree. Unfortunately, less than 40% are successful in earning a baccalaureate after six years of study. Stated simply, most community college students do not achieve their academic goals.

Why has this happened? What will to improve outcomes? And if we can figure out what needs to change, what are the best ways to make them happen? These are hard questions that call out for study, innovation, and an ambitious agenda. The Community College Research Center (CCRC)’s Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins believe that they have good answers to these questions. Their book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, is an extremely important work worthy of consideration, debate and action. While gauging its impact may take many years, I believe that it has already had a significant impact on the community college world.

I have heard and read colleagues in academia reference Redesigning America’s Community Colleges as an argument for “guided pathways,” which they categorize as structuring curricular options to restrict student choice to lessen confusion. That is a key part of the book’s argument, but “guided pathways” are much more than a plea for different advising and registration options for students. A more thorough review gives us the opportunity to assess its multiple claims, arguments and suggestions more carefully. Just as there is no one best way to teach a class, there is no one blueprint to achieving institutional success. There is much to recommend and consider in Redesigning that has little to do directly with curricular pathways.

The book’s introduction quickly sketches out the broad terrain and the author’s qualifications. They stress that “community colleges were designed to expand college enrollment, particularly among underrepresented students, and to do this at a low cost.” As vehicles for student access, community colleges therefore have tended to offer as much as possible to as many as possible. The result, the authors claim, is a cafeteria-style, self-service model of higher education. They believe that instead, colleges should structure their processes to focus on access and success through what they call “guided pathways.” They write that the national completion agenda – as promoted by government and a host of organizations and many colleges – has been inadequate to the task at hand. A major study involving Achieving the Dream (ATD) and the CCRC is cited as evidence: most of the ATD community college reforms only touched a small percentage of students and many of these changes had mixed results.

The heart of Redesigning America’s Community College is a critical look at the four key functions of every community college: program structure, intake and student support services, instruction, and developmental education. Each function is described in the cafeteria model, critiqued using relevant research, and found wanting. Suggestions are proposed through guided pathways. Bear in mind, too, that the authors wield a broad brush. Community colleges are not cafeterias and what is being categorized here is caricatured to a certain degree to make a point.

When looking at program structure, the authors identify long-standing institutional impulses to tailor programs to student choice. They note that many students are given little guidance or support in making their curricular selections and that the courses themselves rarely cohere or align in meaningful ways. In contrast, in a “guided pathways” model, faculty would align courses into structured curriculum. Courses would cohere and choices would be structured to help students better understand what they were taking and learning and why. This section offers the strongest argument and evidence for substantial change.

It is, though, neither accurate nor fair to posit all curriculum and programs as disjointed. Different institutions and programs have developed varying models of curricular coherence. Some community colleges have schools and some have academies. The challenge of curricular coherence is an equal challenge at four-year institutions. Elite colleges with highly motivated and skilled students do not have difficulty with graduation rates, but they do consistently look for means to help students integrate their learning. The result is often achieved through faculty mentoring, a thesis or substantive research requirement. Less élite institutions rely on gatekeeper courses, learning communities, and other program structures to improve student outcomes. It is unusual to find institutions that do not work towards integrated curricula. It is a consistent challenge across higher education.

In the cafeteria model, the authors write, intake and student supports consists of a placement test, an impersonal orientation, and a pro forma advising session focused on getting the student registered for classes. Questions about academic, personal and professional goals receive little attention. Students’ progress is not monitored closely. On the other hand, in a guided pathways model, colleges invest in more up front advising, as well as ongoing advising and services. Student supports are present throughout the education and an information infrastructure enables ongoing assessment of student performance.

This section, I believe, is about better practices. Some community colleges have done more with student orientation and advisement than others, with or without the guided pathways model. Much depends upon local circumstances: the college’s programs, its student population, and whether or not its organization and structure focus appropriately. Specialized programs almost always have robust student intake and advisement programs. What the authors promote here are taking these processes and applying them to the college at scale. A wealth of studies support their push. The more that students feel as though they belong in an institution of higher education, the more that students are able to understand what they want to study and what they hope for their education, the greater the likelihood that the student will be successful.

Instruction in a cafeteria model is not integrated, assessed or developed in a systematic manner. The authors suggest that while there may be outstanding instruction happening regularly, it only exists in individual classrooms because of individual instructors. It is not promoted across disciplines, programs or degrees. Compounding the challenge of seeing consistent high-quality instruction, most community colleges depend heavily upon adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are rarely supervised closely or have opportunities for robust faculty development. Lastly, many of the required courses that students take in community college may not relate to their interests or their lives.

The authors contrast these shortcomings with a model that consistently supports improvements in teaching and learning. Academic support professionals work closely with instructors. Good teaching is celebrated and promoted. Technology is present, but it does not dominate instruction. The book is clear: digital “solutions” will not solve student learning. In their model, the authors advocate a human-focused attention to teaching and learning.

One does not have to support curricular integration to recognize and appreciate the author’s comments on promoting good teaching and learning. Furthermore, the focus on structures and philosophies of student instruction is helpful. They note the limitations of the “knowledge transmission” model of pedagogy, which they believe is the dominant philosophy in a cafeteria model institution. It is interesting claim. I have seen faculty promote a knowledge transition model across courses, disciplines, programs, and institutions. I have also seen faculty promote a learning facilitation philosophy across course, disciplines, programs, and institutions. The critical component in bettering student learning outcomes is helping students and faculty integrate assignment and class student learning outcomes into meaningful program and degree outcomes. Those outcomes have to be studied and the results used to improve the process. Successful learning is always iterative – institutionally and individually. The whole of a college education ought to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Developmental education is a key part of every community college’s mission. Many community college students matriculate without critical academic skills. Cafeteria style developmental education does not work for most developmental education students. Multiple prerequisites hamper students’ progress and the complications of community college students’ lives lead to students dropping out. On the other hand, in a guided pathways model, developmental education is integrated into the students “on-boarding” processes.

CCRC has long been a national leader in helping faculty and colleges innovate developmental education. The need for so many students to take developmental education courses and sequences highlights the inadequacy of many K-12 systems. It is a tremendous challenge for all of higher education, but community colleges in particular address it at scale. Integration and intentionality, again, is key.

The final two chapters of the book are about change. First, the authors suggest an approach to building support within a community college for moving to a guided pathways model. They look at the key components of any effective change process: building trust, engaging with all relevant stakeholders, and connecting the argument for change with an institution’s mission and values.

Redesigning America’s Community Colleges ends with a well-developed argument to politicians, policy-makers and the public at large about the economics of supporting the broad move to a guided pathways model. Bearing in mind the complexity of what the book has already covered, this section could stand on its own. The authors emphasize that community colleges have been funded, de-funded, and incentivized without systematic consideration of student completion consequences. If macro-level institutional systems were instead to pay attention to the resources needed for students to complete certificates and programs at the nation’s community colleges, the consequences would be greater efficiencies and more successful students. Making this changes demands greater up front investments and a willingness to reward institutions for student completions.

Redesigning America’s Community Colleges is a well-written, well-argued and important book. It has relevance for community colleges and for the nation’s larger education ecosystem. The authors’ conception of “guided pathways” is about more than structured curriculum. It is an expansive view of better and best practices with a common theme of intentionality through all actions.

Finding consensus in higher education on what constitutes a better practice is not easy. It takes work, time, a willingness to look at data, and trust. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges does us all a service by outlining areas for improvement, highlighting relevant research, and suggesting ways to go about making those improvements. I think, thought, that its greatest benefit may be in promoting intentionality in all that we and our students do. Intentionality is a widely shared value that is devilishly difficulty to translate into practice regular practice. If we and our students can become more intentional, I know that we will all make progress. It is a worthy aim.

David Potash

2 Comments

  1. 1.3.17

    David,

    Thanks for your thoughtful review and discussion here. I read this post with great interest. I have long felt that most community colleges are under-valued, under-funded, under-utilized, and, I think, under-examined. Personal priorities aside (my first college degree came from a community college headquartered in a former sewing machine manufacturing building in the inner city), I think community colleges offer incredible promise and opportunity for students. My vision for changing/enhancing this significant national resource is cliche’ ridden: mend it don’t end it; no “either OR” strategies … rather, “this AND that”; not “one size fits all,” but not a grand cafeteria menu either.

    One- and two-year certificate career-focused programs; preparation for transfer to a four-year institution; better advising and oversight, starting with initial enrollment; follow-up and assessment; developmental support; and yes, the F word: Funding. Nothing extraordinarily new except the thinking surrounding the big questions: What is the role of the community college in the 21st century? Whom do they serve? How best can they do that?

  2. No mention of Davis Jenkins’ role as a Reinvention consultant? Why not?

    Is CCC reinvention featured in the book, I wonder?

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