Friday, June 25, 2010

The New American Comprehensive College

I got started in writing a blog because one of my younger colleagues in our Institute made me do it. She is much more “hip” than I am and I try to almost always take her advice about how I can more effectively communicate in the media of today.

At the same time as she presented her basic argument that I needed to do a blog, she tried her best to explain to me that blogs by their very nature, needed to be relatively short. I am afraid, I have not learned this lesson well enough.

So in this blog I am merely going to raise a topic and suggest that if you want a more complete rendering of my ideas on this, you should write me and I will send you a brief two page document that lays them out.

This blog was inspired by fact that on June 17 I spent an entire day with a large urban community college district. And I told them, as I am telling every “community college” audience I get in front of these days-- that I have stopped referring to them as “community colleges.” You know, people get attached to their names. And it can be pretty threatening to tell people they ought to drop their name to which they have become so attached now since the end of World War II.

And what would I suggest we call “community colleges?” Quite simple: “The New American Comprehensive College”

And if you would like my brief exposition on this heresy, drop me a note at and I will send you my thoughts on this.

Very succinctly: Community colleges is what they were. New American comprehensive colleges is what they are, have become. There is no more comprehensive institutional type, now that approximately 100 US “community colleges” have been authorized to award four-year degrees.

What’s going on:
1. A perfect storm has converged: the economy tanked and we elected an Ivy League President who is enamored with community colleges.
2. These colleges have become the first choice of millions.
3. The median age of their students is plummeting. This is forcing them to become more like other “colleges.”
4. The social safety net has been gutted over the past twenty years. These colleges now offer many social welfare functions: health care, child care, adult literacy training, job retraining, adult counseling, and redemption from the failings of the US public school system.
5. The baccalaureate institutions cannot possibly meet the demand for all the public school teachers and nurses we need, and other occupational types too. And because four-year institutions haven’t been able to get their costs under control, and/or don’t really want to expand their business of offering majors for low paying graduates who don’t give back big bucks, we have no choice but to expand the “two-year sector.”
6. We cannot possibly increase transfer rates as long as we require a change of institutional cultures for students to experience when they literally “move” from one institution to another. So we have to make it possible for them to “finish” without ever “leaving.”

And this is only a partial list of descriptors of what is going on. Many of these changes are very threatening to my colleagues in the baccalaureate sector but I am excited by them. And there is no putting this genie back in the bottle. It’s time we stopped calling these 1400+ colleges “community colleges.” They are not fixed any longer just to local communities and they have truly become “comprehensive.” It’s all in a name. Names do matter.

-John N. Gardner

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