Monday, November 8, 2010

Unrealistic Expectations of Community Colleges?

oriental bittersweet berries

Aside from the question of whether community & junior colleges exist primarily to educate or to provide job training is the question of what a college with open enrollment is reasonably able to do.

The idea of a college without an admissions application is wonderfully democratic. It means that college is in reach for anyone who takes an interest. Optimistically, I always imagine enthusiastic and determined students who for whatever reason cannot afford or are unable to attend a traditional institution. I think hopefully of this type of student whenever I think of the community college's purpose.

But the elephant in the room at community colleges is student ability. It's nice to say that everyone should get a college degree, & that America needs more college graduates, and thus community colleges should increase their retention levels and number of graduates. However, community college graduates should be expected to be able to read, write, and do basic math, right? Yet how are community colleges supposed to increase their graduation rates when a shockingly high percentage of those enrolling require some form of academic remediation? Allowing standards to slip is an easy fix in the short-term, but it does no-one any favors in the long-term.

It is fashionable right now to blame public institutions for society's failures, including failures in education. When a person is still unable to read, write, or do basic math as an adult, what are her options? A community college is one, but is it fair to then blame the community college when she drops out after two years of remedial classes? What are the causes of this situation? Is this a parenting failure? Is it the proud anti-intellectual streak in American culture? Is it due to bad teachers, and bad K-12 schools? Can any blame be assigned to those individuals themselves who haven't mastered basic skills they've surely been told repeatedly are important?

If community colleges are to be part of a serious solution, this has to be an acknowledged starting point.


  1. I'd say it's a combination of all of those things. I'm a librarian at a community college, and we definitely struggle with student ability. Reading and writing can be problematic; another major problem area is computer skills. I'm not a huge fan of using retention rates as a measure of success for community college, because many of our great students transfer to 4 year colleges as soon as possible.

  2. I'd love to see some data to support your post. Is there data about effectiveness of community colleges re remedial students? How is data about retention being used when it comes to community colleges, and what are there ramifications thereof?

    I like your post and agree generally, but it is a bit nebulous without some data behind it. And if there's really not good data, then we as CC librarians probably need to be calling for it.

  3. The two main sources of data I've seen are:

    1) The National Center for Education Statistics :

    2) The Community College Survey of Student Engagement :

    Sorry about the delay in responding -- I thought I had posted this comment already, but it didn't appear...

  4. Olivia, even at 4 year colleges many students are not prepared. We see many students just don't know how to write. At a tech school like NJIT, calculus is often the big stumbling block. If they can't pass, they can not succeed in science or engineering. How many 18 year olds really have a definitive career goals? It often takes a while to find their niche.