Community Colleges Are More Rigorous Than You Realize

The promotional copy for NBC's hit series Community pretty much sums up the worst stereotypes about community colleges: “It's been said that community college is a ‘halfway school’ for losers, a self esteem workshop for newly divorced housewives, and a place where old people go to keep their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity." Unfortunately, community colleges have long been on the receiving end of academic jokes and parental threats wielded at "lazy" high school students.

This attitude isn't shocking; but it is wrong.

Sure, community colleges do not have the same prestige or well-heeled alumni networks available to graduates of Ivy League or small liberal arts colleges. Nor do they have a rock wall, a lazy river, or a resort-style student union. Sometimes they don't even have reliable WiFi or bathrooms that flush on the first try. But they have one core offering lacking in glossy higher-ed institutions: honest assessment.

Private universities have come under intense scrutiny in recent years because the proliferation of tuition costs and lavish amenities occur in tandem with a rapid rise in grade inflation. It's higher education's worst-kept secret that it is easier to get a "gentleman's A" at a private  undergraduate institution than it is at a public one (even though public four-year college grades are not immune to inflation). This inflated metric of assessment combined with the overwhelming debt of young millennials has caused a growing and vociferous debate over the purpose and practicality of a college degree — one that could potentially undermine the entire American college system. 

According to a 2013 MDRC report, 40% of all students attending college are enrolled in a community college. Despite the accessibility of a community college education, publicly funded community colleges are in fact more discerning in their admissions and in the awarding of degrees then their four-year college counterparts.  

Having taught at both community colleges and major research universities, I can attest that many of my students at both types of institutions arrive underprepared for the rigors of undergraduate coursework; however, the ways the two types of institutions tackle this problem points to larger differences in philosophies that has a major impact on students for years to come.

When a newly admitted community college student arrives under-prepared in reading, writing, or math they are immediately placed in a developmental program, oftenfor no academic credit, to catch them up to college standards. There are blind peer-reviewed exit requirements to insure that students have actually mastered the material and to preclude students from being pushed ahead solely on effort or empathy. One of my students in a developmental writing program once said that high school compositions were all about “points for wounds,” meaning that one only needed to pen a sad enough story to ace an assignment; whereas, in college writing, argument, grammar, and style matter.  

Underprepared students enrolled in a private university are often admitted without any developmental coursework needed. Too many of these freshman fumble their way to senior year, missing key academic literacies that don't manifest themselves until they enter the workforce. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that 200 colleges have adopted the CLA+, a post-SAT style exam, to use as a college exit assessment; this initiative is in response to complaints from employers that too many of their college-educated employees are ill-equipped for the workforce — even those with high GPAs. 

Rigorous admissions and exit requirements, based on actual skill, are a step in the right direction, but they are not a panacea. According to Cornell University's longitudinal study of grade inflation, the problem is far too complex to be eliminated by a blanket assessment or statistical analysis. There is also still much work to be done in improving the structure of developmental education in two-year colleges (and in the K-12 years that precede it), particularly because after completing developmental coursework many students do not acquire the skill-set necessary to enter credit-bearing classes. Even fewer eventually finish their associates degree; only one in three earn a certificate or degree within five years.  

Those who do persevere do so while negotiating obstacles beyond the wildest imagination of any television producer. If the community college experience were televised like The Amazing Race, rather than parodied on Community, the students who managed to attain degrees while working multiple jobs, raising kids, losing homes, and commuting via long, circuitous, and unreliable public transportation routes (yet still make it to class on time) would be fought over by every major employer. Community college students are the ones who demonstrate true academic grit and it's employers' loss if they don't realize what academica already knows: it can be far more difficult to attain an associate degree than a PhD.