Free For All (2)

President Obama’s proposal to reduce community college tuition to near zero has generated quite the wide variety of reactions, but a quick scan of this morning’s news web seems to indicate that the overall response is pretty negative. Some of the main arguments against the plan include:

While I find the second of these critiques to be more than a little elitist, the first and third do have some merit. It’s already a fact that increasing numbers middle class families are sending their children to community colleges for one or two years of substantially lower cost tuition so that they can afford the final years of a bachelor’s program at much more expensive colleges and universities. These families don’t need the subsidy that free tuition would provide.

To me, the bigger issue is finding ways to improve student success rates at community colleges. The answer to the problem of low success rates is not a mystery–it is already well known to those who research student progress at community colleges. As important as financial factors are, just as important to student completion and transfer rates are:

  • Clear pathways to the degree, whether that pathway is to an AA or a BA. Students need to be able to see, from day one, which courses they need and in what sequence. For those transferring to a BA program, the pathways they see need to be well articulated with the BA, so that they do not have to take additional (and repetitive) courses from the upper division institution;
  • Capturing students during their first weeks of their first semester/quarter at the community college to make sure they get good advising on everything from their academic path, to their financial package and responsibilities, to the services available to them from the college. Most new students have no idea how to plan a path to their degree (or transfer) and know almost nothing about the services available to them. Accessing clear and early advising substantially raises completion rates;
  • Find ways to increase the job stability and tenure of community college faculty. Study after study shows that the more long-serving faculty there are at a community college, the higher student success rates are. This makes sense, of course, because the more consistency students have in mentoring and instruction, the better their outcomes should be.

What does this mean for history (and humanities) departments? My last post in this series argued that growth in community college enrollments would almost certainly have a negative financial impact on history (and by extension humanities) departments at BA granting institutions. If freshman and sophomore enrollments do indeed shift to community colleges, as I expect them to, those of us at BA granting institutions need to rethink our relationship to the community colleges in our local markets.

Instead of an us/them way of looking at area community colleges, we should be thinking about “us” in the largest sense of the word–meaning that we are all part of a larger effort to help students achieve their educational goals. It’s not like what I’m proposing is new or revolutionary–the University of Central Florida has been at this for close to a decade and gets around 10,000 transfers from its partner institutions each year.

History departments can take a page from the UCF book and go meet their community college colleagues to discuss collaboration, common learning outcomes, joint faculty hires, BA department advisors available on the community college campuses on a regular basis, finding ways to push undergraduate research opportunities down to the community college campuses, and a whole host of other possible collaborations.

Some of these collaborations will be easy, some will be more difficult (joint faculty hires, for instance). But for any of them to work, faculty from the four year institutions will have to approach such efforts as equal partners, not as those who are employed at “better” institutions. I say this because it is simply a fact that community college faculty are far too often looked down on by colleagues from four year institutions. Nothing could be more toxic to collaborative endeavor.

Speaking as someone who has visited many community colleges over the years and as someone who cares passionately about quality undergraduate teaching, I can say with confidence that some of the best undergraduate teaching in America happens on community college campuses. When it comes to teaching excellence, we can all learn a lot from one another. That prospect alone should make greater collaboration well worth the effort.