Advancing Research on the Community College

By Bers, Trudy H. | Community College Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Advancing Research on the Community College


Bers, Trudy H., Community College Review


Arthur M. Cohen and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Community Colleges have made significant and broad contributions to the scholarly literature and empirical research about community colleges. Although Cohen's interests are comprehensive and his writings touch on multiple issues associated with community colleges, his empirical work is particularly important in three areas: curriculum, transfer, and faculty. This article provides an overview of the work Cohen and his colleagues have conducted in these areas.

Keywords: community college research; curriculum studies; humanities instruction; nonliberal arts; transfer rates

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Arthur Cohen has made substantial contributions to community college research through both his own publications and the work he has inspired at the Center for the Study of Community Colleges at the University of California, Los Angeles. No short article can adequately cover the range of studies and topics he and his colleagues, especially Florence Brawer, have researched. Despite this caveat, I have in this article attempted to provide an overview of three major areas of empirical research--curriculum, transfer, and faculty--as well as Cohen's broader scholarly contributions to the community college research literature. Next, I offer some observations about methodologies used. Finally, I will suggest some linkages between Cohen's work and contemporary studies of community colleges and their students.

Empirical Research

Curriculum

One of the primary areas in which Cohen conducted and led research was curriculum. He has sought to document the nature of the community college curriculum through a variety of studies focused on both the liberal arts (academic) and nonliberal arts (occupational) offerings at community colleges. Outside funders provided support for the major studies, which are identified in Table 1.

As a group, the studies were based on a variety of methodologies, including student and faculty surveys, literature reviews, tabulations of data regarding course offerings and enrollments, and personal interviews. They were largely descriptive, though occasionally an institutional attribute such as size was used to further understanding of the results. Cohen's use of data depicting course offerings and enrollments gave a more accurate and richer picture of what has actually happened in community college curricula than would have been available from a review of catalogs alone.

Cohen defined the liberal arts as courses in these six broad areas: humanities, English, fine and performing arts, social sciences, sciences, and mathematics and computer science. Cohen and Ignash (1993a) adopted the term nonliberal arts to refer to other courses because of confusion in the use of terms such as vocational, occupational, and technical.

Interestingly, in his curriculum studies, Cohen classified English as a second language (ESL) as a foreign language within the humanities. At the time of the first curriculum study, ESL enrollments were substantially smaller than they are today. In an earlier Center for the Study of Community Colleges' study, ESL had been coded as a foreign language, and this was also consistent with recommendations of TESOL, the organization of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Ignash (1994) looked at whether ESL was offered for credit, including what kind of credit. She found variances across the country driven in part by funding mechanisms (pp. 50-51). Today, most colleges probably list ESL as a developmental course inapplicable for a degree, certificate, or transfer.

Beginning in the 1970s, Cohen led a series of studies about the humanities, using literature reviews, student surveys, chair surveys, and curricula analyses. The Center for the Study of Community Colleges published a number of interim and final reports presenting their methodologies and findings (see, for example, Center for the Study of Community Colleges, 1988; Cohen, 1975, 1978; Friedlander, 1983).

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