Public perception of community colleges has improved so much in the past two decades that they are no longer regarded as higher education's last resort. Many two-year schools have increased the number and visibility of honors programs. They have signed deals with many four-year universities, even Ivy League institutions, giving community-college graduates scholarships and entry into those schools.
The first graduating class of Miami Dade College's honors program last year probably could have gone to any university anywhere, with SAT scores of 1200 and high school GPAs of at least 3.7. After earning associate's degrees, their destinations included Amherst, Notre Dame, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, Duke and Howard.
Educators are quick to point out that success stories run throughout community-college innovations. Dual-credit programs, born many years ago but mushrooming within the last decade, have produced graduates who might not otherwise have stepped foot into the colleges. Allowing high schoolers to enroll in college concurrently, the programs are aimed at introducing them to college-level work, while theoretically trimming state educational expenses because students' educational careers are shortened. Houston Community College System Chancellor Dr. Bruce Leslie cites a Black student who earned her associate's degree a week before earning her high school diploma, with plans of transferring to the University of Houston and eventually, Baylor Medical School. She skipped her HCC commencement ceremony because it coincided with a student trip to China, but her mom, who showed up anyway, quoted her as saying "all this was made possible because of HCC and the chance to start college early." Leslie says.
Dr. Janis Hadley, president of Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, views today's dual-credit programs and other expansions no differently than the work-force development and training initiatives that two-year colleges introduced years ago.
"The new curriculum at that time was as much a slippery slope then as these issues are now," says Hadley, also convener of the President's Roundtable, a group of about 100 Black community college presidents. "We cannot be all things to all people. But our core mission is to offer access to all students, so things that expand those opportunities are good, whether it's work-force development or academic expansion." The question is, how much of a good thing is too much?
One of the more controversial moves by community colleges in recent years has resulted in a handful now offering baccalaureate degrees. Miami Dade, one of the most visible and largest two-year schools with 59,000 for-credit students, now gives baccalaureate degrees in special education and secondary math and science education. Officials there plan more baccalaureate programs and have dropped the word "community" from its name to comply with accreditation rules, leading longtime academic observers to call it a "hybrid." Supporters of the baccalaureate movement praise it as a quick, efficient response to work-force shortages because four-year universities move so slowly. Critics though, contend that the movement unnecessarily duplicates university degree programs and question the quality of instruction. They also question the wisdom of putting resources into baccalaureate programs at a time when many urban, two-year colleges are housed in old facilities needing renovation or even replacement.
Miami Dade's venture into the baccalaureate realm came after surveys showed that neighboring Broward County, as well as Miami-Dade County, needed several times more teachers annually than were emerging from the region's four-year schools.
Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), describes himself as "not a big fan" of the baccalaureate movement. "Community colleges are nimble enough to respond to community needs," he says, "but we already have universities. …