Learning Laboratories: Out of Quests for Quality and Accountability, Two-Year Institutions Are Embracing Research in Many Forms

Article excerpt

MENTION "SUSCEPTIBILITY testing on staphylococcus epidermidis," and community colleges don't quickly come to mind. The same goes for "hydrogen fueling," "protein crystallization," or academic journals about the teaching of English.

Yet all of the above describe projects either currently in motion or that have been completed at two-year colleges. The world of research at community colleges is very real--and growing.

"Community colleges need to be thought of more as scholarly institutions," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "It's just that our form of scholarship is different from major research institutions."

Community college research is panning out at the national, systemwide, college, and classroom levels. It can entail the study of teaching and learning, a fast-growing realm, or discipline-area research (think peeking at bacteria under microscopes), which is less common. Or, it can be the evaluation of student outcomes, another booming area.

"Community colleges are now more and more in the national spotlight as being a key element of higher education," says Robert Gabriner, vice chancellor for institutional advancement at City College of San Francisco and former president of the research and planning group for the California Community Colleges. "Key because the colleges, all of them, are really the entry point for the largest number of students in the country, and clearly the largest number of students of color. We're the significant gateway."

Administrators at two-year as well as four-year institutions should pay close attention to the potential of community college research. It can help boost student success, raise institutional profiles, affect recruitment, smooth transfers, and contribute to state or national discussions.

PEEK INSIDE

One of the fastest-growing areas of research for community colleges is that of the institutional kind, meant to "help leaders measure how well their colleges are performing," says Boggs.

Anchored in the aim of developing the capacity of community colleges to educate America's changing populace, and backed by a skyrocketing number of state, federal, and nonprofit initiatives, this kind of research is drawing much attention. When a conference was recently put together for faculty and staff from the California Community Colleges to discuss strengthening student success, it became so popular that organizers had to cut off registration early.

Institutional research isn't without challenges. Many schools struggle to fund and staff their IR offices. "But," notes Boggs, "there's more and more recognition that institutions have to do research to become evidence-based in what they're doing."

One project, Achieving the Dream, is helping to light the way. Achieving the Dream provides grant money and support for institutions to focus on tracking, understanding, and making better use of data in order to improve student outcomes, particularly those of low-income students and students of color.

The initiative expanded this year to include 58 colleges in nine states; the first schools started their evaluations in 2004. "This is very risky, hard work," notes Carol Lincoln, the project's director. It takes courage for a college to look at its numbers and to talk about what is happening, says Lincoln, yet the payoff is worthwhile. "People know that it's important to be successful. If we don't do it with community college students, this country will be in deep, deep trouble."

A NATURAL FIT

Unlike most of their four-year counterparts, community colleges are centered almost exclusively on students. While faculty members at major research universities divide their time between research, writing, and teaching, those who teach at two-year schools focus solely on helping students gain skills and knowledge.

That's why the study of teaching and learning makes good sense for community colleges, says Howard Tinberg, a professor of English at Bristol Community College (Mass. …