Community Colleges Serving the Needs of Education and the Economy
By TC Reports Winter 2002
Since 1996, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Community College Research Center (CCRC), as a division of the Institute on Education and the Economy, has been studying roles that community colleges play in higher education and workforce preparation. Under the direction of Professor Thomas Bailey, the CCRC has looked at missions of community colleges and evaluated concerns such as workforce and economic development, remediation, determinants of student success at community colleges, and the integration of academic and vocational education.
Bailey heads a team of senior research associates, research associates, and research fellows, who along with a distinguished Advisory Board, establish the direction the Center is taking. Their main focus has been the broad changes in higher education, including the growth of for-profit competition, and the changes in the traditional view of higher education in which students just out of high school go to college full-time for four years, live in a dorm, and after graduation, work or go on to postgraduate education. "That is a minority of students," Bailey noted. "There are more older, part-time, working students who live on their own. Much of our thinking about higher education has neglected these types of students, and many of those turn to community colleges for their education."
In addition to Associate Professor Margaret Terry Orr's research that looks at the relationship between community colleges and secondary schools, Associate Professor Delores Perin examined literacy skills of community college developmental education students. More recently, she explored remedial education in these schools, including instructional practices, policy and student outcomes.
"The concept is that [students] are learning the skills they need to do well in the college setting," Perin said.
She added that a new remediation research study is one part of the larger national field study being undertaken by CCRC with 15 different community colleges in seven states across the nation. Along with a team of senior research associates and graduate students, Perin conducts interviews with various people at the colleges, from the president to the students, and combines that with direct classroom observation and documentation reviews. From the different components of the study, they will be able to compile a report on the many roles of community colleges and their effectiveness.
Associate Professor Kevin Dougherty recently completed a project examining the role of these institutions in workforce training. More recently, as part of CCRC's national field study, he has been looking at the impact of federal, state, and private accountability systems on community colleges.
The federal government and many states are moving from funding higher education institutions on the basis of inputs, such as enrollments, toward funding on the basis of outputs, such as graduation and job placement rates.
Along with graduate student Jennifer Kim, Dougherty is interested in understanding both why the federal and state governments are increasingly emphasizing performance accountability for community colleges and what impact such accountability demands are having on community colleges. This study emerges out of Dougherty's interest in the institutional and social implications of the growing use of market and quasi-market forces to regulate higher education.
Dougherty has found that, in response to demands to more clearly demonstrate successful outputs, community colleges are learning to better track their performance and better plan their programs. As a result, many are shutting down or revamping programs that have poor graduation or job placement rates. Moreover, because states are putting more emphasis on successful remediation in college and eventual graduation, community colleges are working more closely with high schools to better prepare future students to do well. "We wondered whether community colleges might be tempted to improve their retention and graduation rates by discouraging the entrance of students who would not be likely to be successful in college," Dougherty noted. "But so far we have not seen that. Instead, community colleges are trying to improve the preparation of incoming students by working closely with the high schools."
Despite these signs of success, community colleges have run into significant problems in coping with the new state and federal demands for performance accountability. They find that the measures of institutional success are not always well adapted to the nature of community colleges as open entry/open exit institutions. Moreover, the new accountability demands impose considerable compliance costs in the form of much more complex and expensive data gathering and reporting systems.
In his research on work-force training, conducted with graduate student Marianne Bakia, Dougherty examined the growing involvement of community colleges in providing employers with customized employee training on a contractual basis and assisting the development of small businesses. He found that contract training relationships emerged not only out of demands by employers but also the government's desire to foster economic growth and community colleges' interest in securing their own benefits. These new training partnerships bring new income to community colleges, whether in the form of cash or donated equipment and services. Moreover, in training a firm's employees, community colleges get a better sense of what skills are being demanded by employers, allowing them to update their traditional vocational programs. Finally, this type of employer-college relationship also establishes connections to powerful employers that may be politically useful at a future date. Despite these benefits to community colleges, the pursuit of customized training carries possible dangers in the form of failing to invest the attention and resources necessary to successfully maintain other traditional functions of the community college such as transfer education. In addition to studying contract training, Dougherty also looked at the role community colleges are playing in developing small businesses, whether by providing managerial advice or providing "business incubators"-subsidized low-rent facilities where entrepreneurs can set up a fledgling company.
All of the research done at CCRC is presented to educators, policy makers, and government agencies and the CCRC advisory board, which includes 10 college presidents, a research analyst from the U.S. Department of Education, a journalist, and the Presidents of the American Association of Community Colleges and the League for Innovation in the Community College.
Researchers from the Center present their findings at seminars and conferences, such as the American Educational Research Association and the American Association of Community College conventions. The reports are published and distributed by the Center and posted to its Web site.
Perin added that in some cases, the Center may produce a position or policy paper in direct response to a request for advice. Some community college issues, such as their role in remediation, are controversial. Perin explained that in taking a position, CCRC was concerned to assess research while at the same time refraining from taking sides when the evidence was not yet in. "We look at the previous research and try to reach some kind of conclusion," she explained. The clarification of as-yet unresolved issues helps CCRC refine pressing research questions regarding community college education.
The Center also responds to requests from colleges to look at their particular needs, to do research and present findings on those specific issues. In one case, the president of a college in Texas is building the institution from the ground up and asked for advice in designing the school.
Bailey stresses the importance of the Center's mission to encourage more people to look at the issues relating to community colleges. "If you take the number of people who are in an institution of higher education over a year, more than half of those people are in community college," he noted. "There is nowhere near as much research devoted to community colleges as there is to elite colleges that enroll perhaps 20 percent of the students involved in higher education."
More information on the Community College Research Center is available at their Web site at www.tc.columbia.edu/ccrc.previous page