In a simpler time, before Viking-helmeted QAnon supporters attempted to upend 232 years of American democracy, and before the higher education press was chock full o’ headlines like what to do When Your Alumni Incite an Insurrection – tips college presidents will file next to humdingers like What to Do When Your Alumni Commit Genocide? and What to Do When Your Alumni Compare Current Events to Genocide? – there was a dispute over a doctorate. In a decision that should have made the cover of the December issue of Bad Judgment Magazine, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed criticizing our new First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, for using the Dr. title. Dr. Biden teaches English composition at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) where she works out of a cubicle and goes by “Dr. B.” The argument was patronizing to Dr. Biden while simultaneously lazily pandering to the prejudices of the few who still read Wall Street Journal editorials (“the Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally”). Amidst much heat (sexist, misogynistic rant) little light was produced until a bulb went off in my head: why did Dr. Biden need to earn a doctorate to teach at a community college?
The question is relevant to the future of America’s public two-year colleges, which are poised for a moment in the sun. President Biden’s higher education platform references community colleges more than 30 times, and his top postsecondary policy priority is tuition-free community college. Community colleges are a good fit for Amtrak Joe – the first President since Reagan without an Ivy League degree (and not a former movie star, despite his cool aviators).
Moreover, the first First Lady with a full-time job outside the White House – and a hard grader at that – has a clear vision for the community colleges that serve the majority of America’s low-income, underrepresented minority, and first generation students; 21% of women enrolled at community colleges are single mothers. At an online conference in November, Dr. Biden said community colleges “help workers get the skills they need to advance careers and earn more.” They are essential to developing “a strong, skilled workforce.”
Here’s hoping Dr. B. can make a difference, because just as the American workforce has been dislocated like never before, community colleges are facing real problems. In what may be a first for a recession, fall enrollment fell by more than 10%, driven by a 21% decline in first-time enrollment. Completion rates remain unacceptably low, due in part to a wide range of general studies associate degree programs that have little or no labor market value in and of themselves. The goal, of course, is to provide an inexpensive (and soon free) point of entry to bachelor’s degrees through the magic of transfer. The problem is that transferring from a community college to most four-year institutions is about as magical as Siegfried and Roy’s current act (which is to say, sadly, not at all); a recent GAO report showed that transferring students lose 43% of credits they’ve earned, which contributes to dismal transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rates.
But the bigger issue is that fewer prospective students view community college as a pathway to good jobs. Dr. Biden’s CV points to the fundamental problem. She began her career as a substitute teacher in Wilmington, DE, then taught at an adolescent psychiatric hospital, public schools, and private schools, before teaching writing at Delaware Technical & Community College. She served as an adjunct there and then at NOVA until she received her doctorate in 2007. In 2009 she gained a full-time position, yielding sought-after perks like the cubicle and pre-tax Amtrak.
It’s not a coincidence that Dr. B. needed to earn a doctorate to become full-time faculty at NOVA. Community colleges have many adjuncts, but relatively few full-time professors in each department. When full-time positions open up, competition is fierce. And although accrediting guidelines for all but the most remedial courses only call for master’s degrees with 18 credit hours in the discipline, given the level of competition, most candidates without doctorates don’t stand a chance. So whereas 25 years ago, only about 20% of full-time faculty at community colleges had doctorates, current estimates are substantially higher.
While requiring doctorates for faculty who teach English composition may be inefficient – community college faculty don’t do research or publish, so those skills gained in doctoral programs aren’t particularly apt – it’s not catastrophic for America’s workforce; every employer wants employees who can write. But because community college degree inflation isn’t limited to the English department, it discriminates against industry practitioners better positioned to deliver sector and job-specific skills than career academics who – by dint of their path through a terminal degree – have neither experience nor networks in the private sector, let alone in the professions for which they’re ostensibly preparing students.
Perceived as the red-headed stepchildren of higher education, community colleges are subservient to four-year institutions in crucial ways that harm their own students. First is the transfer function, which allows universities to dodge designing comparable low-cost degree pathways themselves while leaving community colleges with dissociative identity disorder (transfer vs. workforce). Second is serving as a jobs program for universities pumping out far too many Ph.D.s. Besides Switzerland and Luxembourg, we lead the world in doctoral density. American universities award nearly 40% more doctorates than they did 20 years ago, driving doctorates per capita to nearly double the OECD average. By providing jobs for Ph.D.s, community colleges prop up doctoral programs – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – ensuring continued cheap teaching labor. But in keeping universities afloat, community colleges are crowding out instructors and staff with meaningful industry experience who may be better situated to – in the words of Dr. B. – “help workers get the skills they need to advance careers and earn more.” It’s increasingly challenging to find community college full-time faculty who have any experience with the jobs students would like to get. And as it’s full-timers who become Deans and Presidents, privileging Ph.D.s also means forgoing future leaders with a vision for community colleges different from the universities where the vast majority of doctorate-clutching faculty and administrators would rather be working.
What will occupy the space between high school and economic self-sufficiency for the next generation of low- and middle-income Americans? Given concurrent crises of affordability, completion, and employability, four, five, or six years on a leafy green campus isn’t realistic for most. Covid’s answer is online, and many pundits think we’re unlikely to go back to ground. But don’t believe it until technology can deliver not only cognitive skill development – extremely sketchy for students lacking motivation, preparedness, and a support structure (i.e., the students most in need of the leg up promised by postsecondary education) – but also the social and soft skills that emerge in a physical cohort.
If we’ve learned anything from nearly a year of remote learning, it’s that kids learn best in an immersive setting, and that extends to the space between high school and economic self-sufficiency. With nearly 1,000 dotted across the country, community colleges are the most obvious solution – hence their centrality for the Bidens. But to fill that space in the way the Bidens (and all of us) need, community colleges must transform from institutions that are predominantly academic in form and substance, to something different and at least equal to (if not better than) their prestigious elder siblings.
If two-year colleges fail to stand up to their four-year tormentors and do what’s right for students – i.e., laser focus on helping “workers get the skills they need to advance careers and earn more” – desperate job seekers will flow to other training spaces. Community college inaction has already given rise to thousands of new last-mile training programs. Scaled apprenticeship programs are being built within business services companies which have already closed the hardest part of the skills gap: meaningful connections to hiring managers at employers (i.e., not HR). We’re even seeing high schools – in particular, innovative charter school networks – seeking to bridge the gap to first jobs: K-14 instead of K-12.
None of these alternative pathways are hung up on doctorates or even degrees. They don’t care about the things universities care about because the people who run them didn’t spend a decade at universities and wouldn’t rather be working at one. Their focus is the same as Dr. B.’s. It’s about outcomes for students, not about the credentials of the people who work there.
Dr. Biden has called community colleges “America’s best-kept secret.” But it’s time to step out of the shadows. Baby boomers had a 90% chance of doing better than their parents. For Millennials, it’s a 50/50 proposition. And now with the first members of Gen Z reaching the workforce in a pandemic-induced recession, we’ve reached the dark side. Dr. Biden’s ascendence may be the best opportunity for community colleges to shirk subservience and shine as a distinct and equally important segment of American postsecondary education.
To do so, start by recognizing that the set of skills faculty develop in doctoral programs – research, writing, domain expertise in an academic subject – and the set of skills community college students need – teaching, experience/network in a profession, work-integrated learning, ability and willingness to provide remedial assistance, and compassion (see Dr. B. helping students find healthcare) – have little in common. There’s no good reason these two should have gotten married in the first place. For the sake of the kids, rather than lazily relying on the Ph.D. (lazy like a Wall Street Journal editorial writer), community colleges must seek new ways to identify faculty and instructors most likely to help students launch careers.
While they’re at it, community colleges and their accreditors ought to revisit the master’s degree requirement to teach credit-bearing courses. Community colleges should be encouraged to solicit a much wider and more diverse range of faculty and staff from industries like tech and healthcare where there are millions of open jobs and where students would love to get jobs. Community college students want to be working, and what community colleges are doing now isn’t working for most.
True to her ethos, Dr. B. didn’t earn a highfalutin Ph.D., but rather an Ed.D, and her thesis explored concrete ways to improve student retention at community colleges. So while President Biden focuses on giving doctors what they need to put this pandemic behind us, if we’re serious about economic, social, and political healing and recovery – with the significant exception of Dr. B. – we could do with fewer doctors at community colleges.