In July, as U.S. automakers were emerging from bankruptcy, President Barack Obama dramatically announced the American Graduation Initiative at Macomb Community College, some 12 miles from Detroit, calling for a massive federal investment of $12 billion in the nation's community colleges. "Not since the passage of the original GI bill and the work of President Truman's Commission on Higher Education--which helped to double the number of community colleges and increase by seven-fold enrollment in those colleges," the president stated, "have we taken such a historic step on behalf of community colleges in America." With the goal of restoring the U.S. to its global leadership role in postsecondary degree attainment--it's now ranked No. 10 in degree attainment for 25- to 34-year-olds--the initiative calls for a potpourri of strategies, ranging from producing 5 million more community college graduates by 2020 to creating a new online skills laboratory. Reacting to this initiative, Time magazine asked, "Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy?"
They cannot do it alone, but community colleges can be a big part of the solution. The problem, however, is that over the years, community colleges have been asked to serve multiple and often conflicting missions, invariably with inadequate resources.
America's community colleges serve as an inclusive bedrock that can provide a much needed corrective to the increasing exclusivity and segmentation of American life. Whereas our neighborhoods, communities, and schools are segregated by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the nation's community colleges enroll a spectrum of learners whose demographics cut across many of these dividing lines.
Since their founding in 1901, community colleges have consistently been overshadowed and snubbed by the nation's prestigious baccalaureate and graduate institutions, whose contemporary raison d'etre is best captured by competition for the top spot in U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings.
Although community colleges have long provided an accessible gateway to upward mobility for millions of Americans excluded from "traditional" higher education by high costs and competitive admissions practices, their legitimacy has often been questioned. In 1960 Burton Clark, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, proposed his "cooling out" theory, which essentially argues that community colleges function to dissipate student ambitions and reproduce existing social class divisions. Much of the critical analysis that followed, such as L. Steven Zwerling's in his 1976 book, Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College, and Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel's in their 1989 book, The Diverted Dream: Community College and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America, 1900-1985, asserted that community colleges had moved away from a baccalaureate-oriented liberal arts curricula toward vocational programs that channel students into low-wage, dead-end jobs.
Kevin Dougherty's 1994 analysis in The Contradictory College: The Conflicting Origins, Impacts and Futures of the Community College provides a more nuanced account, suggesting that community colleges struggle to accommodate the multiple demands of their transfer, terminal-degree, and work-force preparedness mission. Finding that students entering two-year colleges with the ambition of completing a baccalaureate degree are far less successful than those who begin a similar quest at four-year institutions, Dougherty suggests that community colleges be part of an existing university system rather than function as stand-alone institutions. The offering of associate degrees at branches of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education exemplifies the approach that Dougherty advocates.
The difficulty in balancing the multiple missions of the community college, especially given burgeoning enrollments and declining state appropriations, is the primary challenge facing these institutions. …