Magazine article The Catalyst

Emerging Challenges for Community Colleges

Magazine article The Catalyst

Emerging Challenges for Community Colleges

Article excerpt

In just over a century, the American community college system has expanded from a single institution to over one thousand colleges serving almost half of all students enrolled in public higher education. While community colleges have adapted successfully to waves of changes over the years, a unique combination of demographic and socioeconomic changes predicted for the next decade promises to challenge the resilience of these low-cost, open-access institutions.

This article is drawn from "Next Steps for the Community College" (New Directions for Community Colleges, Spring 2002) and summarizes three overlapping challenges facing colleges in the coming decade: educating a more diverse student body, assessing student outcomes, and maintaining the educated workforce needed to meet the increasingly complex needs of the students and institutions.

Educating a More Diverse Student Body

Community colleges typically serve students from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, levels of academic preparation, educational aspirations, work and family responsibilities, and levels of English fluency than do four-year institutions (Williams). Mirroring the changing demographics of the nation, the community college student body will continue to grow in size and diversity over the next decade. Community college programs and services will be called upon to adapt to what Helfgot calls a "continuing wave of the unders," a student population increasingly composed of "the underprepared, the underrepresented, the underachieving, the underclass" (as cited in Williams, p. 68).

Remediation

Almost half of all students entering community colleges enroll in at least one remedial course. One recent study indicated that 60 percent of this remedial population are traditional-- age students enrolling in college immediately after high school graduation (as cited in Oudenhoven, p. 39). The other 40 percent are adult students who may be pursuing personal interests, preparing for transfer, upgrading job skills, or preparing to change careers. While many students require some remediation, 80 percent of the remedial population needs only one or two courses, with math the most common area of remediation (Oudenhoven). The type and extent of remediation needed varies by students' socioeconomic, academic, and cultural backgrounds as well as by their educational objectives.

The projected increase in the number of underprepared students raises concerns that limited college resources may be overwhelmed by demands for remediation and that other desirable college programs such as transfer programs, career and occupational programs and noncredit and continuing education offerings may be adversely affected. Some taxpayers or state boards of education argue that remediation should not be offered in college, saying that the public is being charged twice for what should have been learned in high school and that remediation "dumbs down" the college curriculum. Others argue that as long as colleges admit underprepared students, they are responsible for providing them with the help that they need. Remediation is central to the emerging assessment and accountability movement in higher education, and represents one of the more important educational, social and economic issues in the United States today (Oudenhoven).

Assessing Student Outcomes

The ultimate purpose of assessment of student outcomes is to improve teaching, learning, and delivery of services to students. Assessment is increasingly linked to accreditation, accountability, and performance funding in higher education (Seybert). While similar to four-institutions, assessment of student outcomes in community colleges reflects the greater diversity of the student body and the broader educational mission of these institutions. In particular, community college assessment measures tend to focus around student learning outcomes in the major academic areas common to most community colleges, including transfer programs and career and occupational programs. …

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