The rapidly changing nature of community college

May 21, 2018
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Figure wearing a backpack as they walk along a narrow path with sheer drops on either side.

Community colleges are having an identity crisis.

OK, that may be overstating it, but not by much. In the face of major cultural shifts, political pressures, and social and demographic changes, many community colleges are rethinking their fundamental mission and design.

Cafeteria or pathway?

“Historically community colleges in particular -- but some four-year colleges as well -- were designed in a kind of ‘cafeteria style,’” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, Assistant Vice-Provost for Research in Undergraduate Education at The Ohio State University. “They originated with the purpose of creating access to a variety of courses and student support services. The goal wasn’t necessarily graduation with a degree per se.”

Now, though, the focus has expanded from access and enrollment to include student success and completion. That shift has required many community colleges to reinvent their philosophies, processes, staffing, infrastructure, and more.

jaggars-2Jaggars, along with coauthors Thomas Bailey and Davis Jenkins, investigated this phenomenon in their book Redesigning America's Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Because these changes affect every area of campus, a holistic redesign is necessary, authors argue, and they propose guided pathways as a model that can give structure and purpose to this community college evolution.

E-advising, equity, technology, and transfer

In her work, Jaggars has also researched the implementation of e-advising software at six different colleges.

“For a couple of the colleges, e-advising worked very well to complement and enhance in-person advising; for a couple the software implementation was a waste of money,” Jaggars said. “Success had to do with whether the college redesigned the role of adviser and changed how the work was done, or if they just layered the technology on top of existing practices without changing anything else.”

She has also conducted research on transfer pathways between community colleges and receiving four-year institutions.

“At most universities, faculty and staff know very little about community colleges, and assume they can’t trust the academic quality of their courses<" Jaggars said. "So that creates barriers in terms of the number of transfer students and course credits they’re willing to accept. But there’s actually very little evidence to support that assumption.” 

Though the initial evidence for guided pathways reforms is very promising, Jaggars cautioned that colleges must implement reforms in ways that intentionally maintain access and equity.

“Especially with some big software systems, if a student is flagged as not likely to do well in a certain course or major and advised away from that course or major, could we be systematically turning away underrepresented minorities from the STEM field, for example?” Jaggars said. “How do we wrestle with those issues?”


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