Growing up in Canada, football was a sport that merited so little attention that no one thought it odd that 25% of the teams in the Canadian Football League – two of eight franchises – shared the same name: The Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders. Such inanity wouldn’t pass muster in the U.S. where football receives more scrutiny than any other sport, particularly around the apotheosis of controlled chaos and conspicuous consumption known as the Superbowl. Every social media post, gesture, and play is picked apart, and millions of fans wonder at and/or second guess the intricate strategies devised by overworked, but well compensated coaches and coordinators.
Football wasn’t always so elaborate. In the early days of the NFL, quarterbacks would call their own plays, not unlike boys on a sandlot. It wasn’t until legendary Cleveland coach Paul Brown inserted a miniature radio into QB George Ratterman’s helmet that the potential for complexity and coaching became clear. But as with most things, football’s evolution wasn’t a straight line. Ratterman’s radio picked up his coach’s plays, but also nearby taxis and police dispatches. In one game against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, Coach Brown radioed in a play, but Ratterman ran back to the sideline and pulled off his helmet. “Coach,” the quarterback said, “some guy just got stabbed over on Fifth Avenue.”
When signals get crossed and multiple messages are conveyed simultaneously, it’s hard to know what play to run. This characterizes Cleveland’s radio helmet, which was soon banned (the NFL would only reintroduce radio communication between coaches and QBs in 1994). But it’s also a fair depiction of America’s community colleges.
The original purpose of community colleges was accessibility: bringing postsecondary education into communities. Community colleges long ago accomplished this mission; for decades, few Americans have lived more than a short drive from one of 1,100 community college campuses. But don’t spike the football just yet. Because our most accessible institutions now serve 12M students annually – and a majority of low-income, underrepresented minorities and first generation students (21% of women enrolled in community colleges are single mothers) – the question of what kind of postsecondary education to offer in communities became one with colossal economic and social ramifications. Sadly, this question has been answered with signals as disparate as a reverse flea flicker and a taxi dispatch.
For decades, community colleges have received conflicting signals from the states and systems that created and funded them: offer short programs that lead directly to good jobs, but also provide an open enrollment pathway to bachelor’s degrees. The first signal is employer- and employment-centric. The second is academic.
I’m sympathetic to the academic signal. My mother spent her entire career teaching sociology at a community college. But across the landscape of American community colleges, led by university-educated administrators who’d probably rather be working at universities, academic programs dominate like the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. At most, 40% of community college offerings are employment-centric (including associate degree programs in areas like nursing); the majority are academic, with local labor market connections as obscure and mystical as the offerings of their four-year brethren.
But unlike bachelor’s degrees, academic programs at community colleges are a waystation, not a destination. Even if students complete them – fewer than 30% do, and fewer than 20% of underrepresented minorities – academic associate’s degrees (again, distinct from programs like nursing) are rarely valued by employers. As one recent recipient of an associate’s degree in Individual Studies complained on Indeed: “what kinds of jobs would I qualify for with this type of degree?... All I seem to be able to get are really crappy jobs.” It’s no wonder so many U.S. employers now call their frontline service workers “associates.” These jobs may be the only ones available to candidates with associate’s degrees.
It’s well understood that the bottleneck is the point of transfer. The faculty-centric academic model at four-year institutions has fostered a system where the default decision-maker for credit transfer is the faculty member. Does this community college course in communications satisfy our English requirement i.e., is it truly equivalent to our course? While some states have managed to disrupt this default, redundant credits are the typical result, which means more cost and more time for life to get in the way. But while credit transfer gets most of the attention, the underlying need to leave one college and enroll in another is often enough to cause a fumble. Navigating new enrollment, financial aid, transcript requests, prior credit recognition, program selection, course selection, and scheduling can be as complex as the NFL Rulebook. The upshot is that while 85% of traditional-age students who begin academic programs at community colleges intend to transfer, only 30% ever fulfill that goal. And then only about half of those who transfer earn a bachelor’s degree (and only a third of low-income students).
Community colleges are supposed to serve the tens of millions of Americans who most need the economic and social leg up promised by postsecondary education. And as Michelle Van Noy of Rutgers rightly noted in Career Success for All: The Equity Role of Community Colleges in Career Preparation, “When a [community] college offers a particular program, it implicitly communicates to students that there is value in completing it. This is particularly crucial to disadvantaged students, who have limited time and financial resources to dedicate to their education.” But given the preponderance of academic programs at community colleges, most of what’s offered today requires disadvantaged students to win the first half, make it through a highly distracting halftime show, win again in the second half, and then once more in the postgame by landing a good job.
Academic associate’s degree programs are like a pie eating contest where first prize is more pie. And the emerging political consensus around free community college only exacerbates the problem. By enticing students to begin their academic journeys at free community colleges rather than four-year institutions, policymakers may be reducing students’ odds of earning a valuable postsecondary credential by half.
So what’s the alternative? A good start would be for policymakers and system leaders to recognize that accessibility mattered a lot more when four-year colleges and universities were inaccessible to all but a small segment of the population. Digital technology hasn’t changed much in postsecondary education. Completion and affordability are still huge problems. Employability has become a much bigger problem. But one thing technology has changed is accessibility. Yes, there are still issues with broadband, but there’s no reason to think academic programs from four-year universities are not accessible to virtually all students who want them. In fact, the volume of online ads and sad stories of students lured into online degree programs that did them no good demonstrates degrees may well be too accessible.
Sure, you’re thinking, but online degrees + an at-risk population = dropouts. That remains true for high-churn asynchronous online programs. But emerging synchronous online programs have the potential to be just as effective as onground programs – if not more so due to data capture and the opportunity to stage appropriate interventions for at-risk students – and also cheaper. Accessibility challenges haven’t completely disappeared – students with disabilities may be better served by onground programs, and onground or blended modalities are required for programs with clinical requirements – but most students interested in pursuing an academic degree now could be better served directly and continuously by the four-year institutions they aspire to attend.
Community colleges remain burdened by mixed signals because four-year colleges and universities are standing on the sidelines, cheering as community colleges attempt to serve the majority of America’s low-income, underrepresented minority and first generation students. This cozy arrangement has allowed universities to focus on better-prepared students and to continue to increase tuition. The result has been a massive backpedaling in socioeconomic mobility by universities like SUNY Stony Brook, where bottom income quintile enrollment declined from 17.5% of total enrollment in the late 1990s to 10.5% a decade later, and where net price for low-income families has risen 50% since then. And it’s contributed to continued poor performance by community colleges, confused by mixed employment and academic signals.
It’s high time we sent a clear signal to community colleges: offer programs that lead directly to good jobs in growing sectors of the local economy. This means industry certifications, certificates, and last-mile training driven directly by employer needs. It means hiring and contracting with more subject matter experts and advisors from growth industries. It means creating and legitimizing new apprenticeships and pathways to good first jobs. It means new staffing and placement business models, and not hiring career advisors, but rather salespeople to place graduates. It means faster and better employment outcomes for disadvantaged students i.e., a more equitable system. It means hiring leaders who aren’t biding their time, hoping to one day lead an academic institution. And it means attracting thousands of dedicated and talented social entrepreneurs currently focused on establishing innovative new pathways to employment, but who currently aren’t considering going to work for our most accessible postsecondary institutions.
Conversely, clarifying the signal to community colleges will require four-year institutions to take full responsibility for delivering academic programs to millions of additional students. The implications for universities are enormous: new synchronous online programs; growing enrollment, lowering tuition; increasing co-requisite remediation; new investments in coaching and interventions; prior learning assessments for community college graduates who decide to pursue degrees after a few years of work; and hiring more faculty like my mom, who should have been teaching at a university in the first place. But the benefits for students who won’t get lost at the point of transfer should be highly persuasive for governors, state legislators, and system heads.
If we’re as serious about improving student outcomes as we are, say, about football, we need to rethink the fundamental structure of public postsecondary education. States should give universities responsibility for delivering academic degrees and make them serve all interested students. In so doing, they can allow for a renaissance of employment-focused community colleges.
America’s community colleges have so much unmet potential, but their challenges are systemic. Unless and until community colleges receive a clear signal of the play they’re supposed to run, it’s not realistic to believe they’ll ever score a touchdown, let alone win the Superbowl for tens of millions of students and the American economy.