The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Why Community Colleges Struggle to Increase College Completion Rates

America’s 1,200 community colleges enroll nearly half of credit-earning undergraduates, and first time students. However, scholarly attention to this growing postsecondary sector is dwarfed by research and publications concerning 4-year institutions. Furthermore, community colleges serve a disproportionate share of low income students including 79% of California’s Latino students. And, public four-year institutions grew by 3.5% from 1990 to 2000, but public two-year enrollments grew by 14%.

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest (eds.) Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2006) addresses several key threats to the community college equity agenda. The co-authors have long and deep backgrounds through their leadership roles in the Community College Research Center at Teachers College.

Community colleges enroll almost anyone who wants to come regardless of academic preparation. Community college budgets are fiscally constrained, and their resources often lag enrollment growth. Moreover, need based student financial aid has not kept up with the changing student bodies. Many students, however, do succeed in community colleges despite long odds.

The book begins with the historic dilemma of how community colleges can balance their multiple missions – four-year college transfer, vocational education, continuing education for businesses, basic adult education such as learning English, and recreational courses. This multiple-mission analysis is highlighted by the authors’ concern for a recent trend of shifting college attention and policy away from low income and disadvantaged students. Moreover, community colleges aspire to move up the academic ladder by emulating practices and policies at four-year institutions. Along these lines, the book emphasizes that a larger and growing proportion of community college students are recent high school graduates, so college mission needs to shift more to the 17-20 age range.

The multiple mission concern is heightened by the chapter on lack of accountability. The authors conclude that “accountability, especially performance-based funding, so far has been a paper tiger. It has not threatened college funding or enrollments” (p. 249).

The authors summarize their conclusions this way: It is fair to say that community colleges have made a crucial contribution to opening college access, but their role in providing overall equity in higher education outcomes is less clear. The majority of students who start community college do not earn a degree or certificate (p. 247). The good intentions and hard work of community college faculty in promoting the college success of their students are not reinforced by institutional incentives and information systems (p. 248).

The chapter about increasing competition and growth of the for-profit community colleges is fascinating. It includes some criticisms of for-profits, but also stresses for-profit community colleges focused more effort on job placement than the public community college case study institutions that the authors studied (p. 96).

The edited volume includes a significant focus on the community college role in preparing students for work. An entire chapter is devoted to industry certification programs with an emphasis upon industry technology certification. This chapter analyzes the rapid rise and fall of industry certification during the technology boom and bust from 1995 to 2005. Workforce issues also are featured in an excellent chapter by Norton Grubb of the University of California at Berkeley on the inadequate community college resources devoted to counseling.

There are two chapters on the remediation issue and another chapter on dual enrollment that helps high school students understand academic challenges at community colleges.

The book provides a balanced picture of the challenges facing community colleges and the resulting inadequate outcomes for students. The book is filled with current statistics, trends, and citations that will be a bonanza for future scholars. It also analyzes how a small sample of 15 colleges in six states have responded to various challenges.

The final chapter is a powerful indictment of many components of community colleges including their inadequate : college completion rates, developmental education operations, information systems, transfer of credits to four-year institutions, advising, and quality of online instruction. The book ends with an excellent summary of the equity outcomes and recommendations to improve institutional practices and policies.

Some more critical comments about the book in my next blog entry.

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