Community colleges boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, with a new campus opening at the rate of one a week in the 1960s. They no longer need to grow at that rate, but they do need to recapture the vitality that drove them then. A new report on these neglected campuses of the nation's higher education system offers important suggestions for halting their erosion.
Community colleges enroll more than half of the country's college freshmen and more than four of every 10 undergraduates. That statistic alone makes those campuses too important to be ignored in the current wave of education reform. The group that represents them in Washington--the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges--has commissioned a study by a panel of educators chaired by Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The commission report will sound familiar to Californians:
--Community colleges aren't always sure of their role. Should they concentrate on academic programs for people who will move on to four-year campuses? Should they provide technical and continuing education? Should they provide special training in English for immigrants and programs for older people?
--The colleges increasingly must fight for public money that once flowed easily. Spending on each full-time community college student, adjusted for inflation, went up only 2% between 1971 and 1985. Spending on students at four-year campuses increased 15% in that period.
--Community colleges don't fully recognize the role they play in bringing blacks, Latinos and Asians into the higher education system. They enroll 55% of all Latino undergraduates, 57% of American Indian college students, 43% of blacks and 42% of Asians attending college. They especially fall down in recruiting minority and female faculty members and top administrators.
--And community colleges aren't doing all they can to encourage good teaching and professional growth for full-time faculty members. They also must do more to validate the the teaching ability of part-time faculty from various professions.
To help regain the momentum they once had, the colleges must focus better on the communities they serve, the report said. They especially must do a better job in retaining minority students. They must identify their potential students, perhaps in junior high school. Then they should work with secondary schools to prepare students for college, with an emphasis on counseling.
Community colleges have an obligation to serve students as they find them, the report said. They must improve students' literacy and offer solid general education courses as well as technical subjects. Access must be as broad as possible.
Typical faculty members teach five classes a semester. Classes are too big. Preparation time is too short. Teaching isn't getting easier, the report said. Better-trained people will be needed, and lots of them, because in just over a decade about 40% of the faculty members now teaching at community colleges will retire. Half of today's faculty is male. All but 10% are white. "At a time when the student body increasingly is female and black or Hispanic, community colleges can no longer live with the current arrangement," the report added.
Not only must states provide increased financial resources for embattled community colleges, but corporations and foundations must also help. Businesses in particular could pay the bills to start new technological training programs.
The panel acknowledged that it was drawing up "an awesome agenda." But it is one that every state legislature, every governor, every community college administrator and trustee should read, and then they should get out there and get busy.