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Community Colleges in the Woodshed

Spared for years by criticism aimed at K-12 schools and four-year institutions of higher learning, community colleges are now in the dock for failing to perform their missions. The main venue is California, whose Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 conceived community colleges as an affordable way for students to complete the first two years of college before transferring to a four-year school and for students seeking an associate's degree or career certification.

In a report by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, researchers found woefully low student transfer and completion rates at California's 112 community colleges serving 2.9 million students ("Community colleges must commit to change," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 27). Only one-third of the 250,000 first-time students from 2003 through 2009 received any credential whatsoever. For students aiming to transfer to the University of California or California State University, only 23 percent had done so six years later. For black and Hispanic students, the numbers were worse - 20 percent v. 14 percent, respectively.

Recognizing the problem, the Long Beach College Promise center was established three years ago. It is a collaboration between the Long Beach Unified School District and California State University Long Beach that seeks to provide a coordinated system of "information, intervention and academic preparation from kindergarten to graduate school," according to the Los Angeles Times ("In Long Beach, a promise to help struggling students," Oct. 29).

The question is why community colleges have done so poorly. When the issue is students who are counseled to apply to a four-year college or university directly from high school even though they have neither the aptitude nor desire, the answer is clear: They are the recipients of bad advice. But how do we explain the examples of students who want to go to a community college to earn an associate degree or a certificate as their terminal educational goal? Can we claim that they are also the victims of bad advice? Or is there some other explanation that bears looking into?

It may be that for many young people a brick-and-mortar campus is obsolete. At least, this is what Charles Murray believes (Real Education, Crown Forum, 2008). The Internet provides many students with the training they are seeking in a way that they are most familiar with. Let's not forget that the millenniums have grown up with technology on a scale that the baby boomers have not. Even the argument about the need for interaction between teachers and students or between students themselves no longer applies when e-mail exists. Distance learning and Facebook seem to be enough. Moreover, work-bound students believe that their employers will provide them with all the on-the-job training they need. Why spend the time, effort and money in a community college?

It's something to think about.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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