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We need a different perspective for community colleges

What looks like a problem may be a solution

There has been a tremendous amount of worry, talk, and hand wringing about both the future and the problems facing the community college system. The steady decline in enrollment is driving that concern. Long term acceleration of structural social change creating an interwoven set of problems on the political and economic fronts has confused the situation for educators trying to meet current needs while adjusting for accelerating change. Put into human terms this includes the rising cost of higher education, already out of reach of much of the population who were taught from birth that a college education is the minimum requirement for success, the disappearance of many jobs to automation, and a steadily worsening political collapse causing a planetary realignment centered away from the US and to the EU and, most significantly, China. For education in the US this has been greatly exacerbated by the steady reduction of funding for higher education by states resulting in ever higher tuition. That this needs to be reversed is now obvious but that is a very large ship that must be turned completely around and pointed on a different course from the one it has been following for the last forty years. State institutions are very slow to turn. The failed national election of 2016 has created an administration of little competence seemly devoted to making all problems worse.

The community colleges in the US were created to provide an higher education path for children of non college families to achieve a foothold in a higher socioeconomic status. This would be done through more personal education of smaller community college campuses able to charge much lower tuition than traditional four year institutions. At the same time the community college could provide the alternate track to skilled technical positions that are where jobs still exist as manufacturing and manual labor positions disappear or are outsourced to cheaper labor countries. This worked and community colleges became a major component in US adult education. The 21st century has not been kind to this plan. Students who previously marched directly from high school into community colleges have been disappearing from the system and a growing percentage arriving at community colleges spend not two years but four or five and still do not get “degrees” or institutional credentials.

Community college administrations have focused on how to retain students and get them to complete the credentials that the community colleges want them to have. This has produced some improvement in retention and completion but only after great effort and expense. State programs have implemented expanded financial aid working to fund students from both state and federal programs. Tennessee and Hawaii have implemented nearly identical programs making community college effectively free for students having any type of need and or minority group limitation. Tennessee has quickly discovered that this does not seem to be producing completion of degrees or certificate for the most under represented minority populations and a growing percentage of students have learned how to scam the system to receive money for housing and food. This was possible because community colleges are not well equipped to handle the cost of tracking abuses of financial aid. The traditional procedures are to delete outstanding balances for students not completing course work a few weeks into the next semester. Students could then re-enroll for the next semester and do it again. This is a small minority but indicates the type of unanticipated problems created by a rapidly changing social and economic structure with confused or simply wrong and counter productive political policies.

The real problem

A more fundamental problem is the growing mismatch between what students want and what community colleges want to give. State university based community colleges, and community colleges in general, identify themselves as the lower division of state university systems. Their official mandate was and is to transfer students to the state four year institutions while, in effect, selling the students a range of intermediate credentials. This was the origin of he Associate of Arts or Sciences degree inserted neatly between the high school diploma and the baccalaureate degree. The official focus has remained on pushing an ever higher percentage of the population to the baccalaureate level. This worked well from the 1960's to power the growth of the American middle class in a market based capitalist system dedicated to consumption. The underlying bargain was subsidized education for all and a full subsidized income for military veterans to support endless growth and wars. By the 2000’s this began to breakdown as income distribution became increasingly distorted producing a vastly wealthy oligarchic class with no interest in supporting the full population with their taxes. Thus began the destruction of asset distribution and the continuous reduction of educational funding and failure to support public infrastructure in general. We are now at the end of that road with few options left while facing the need for a completely different economic approach to reverse the causes of climate change and the complete transformation of material production to AI and automation.

The reality is that a generation is now in college (Millennials) who grew up with the loss of resources and elimination of jobs and whole professions who understand at a basic level that they can’t count on anything. While the value of baccalaureate education may be there it is not guaranteed and the cost means a life time of debt. Even graduate trained professionals need to work hard to overcome huge debts and are burdened with the understanding of climate change driven by exploitation and massive over production to enrich a tiny percentage of the population. There is little hope of a good life in the form that their parents and grandparents taught them to expect. There is a very clear realization that higher education is useful but requires money and commitment with no guarantee of a return and any lesser degree or certificate, unless it is directly tied to a job, will get you little or nothing.

Existing jobs are increasingly in the gig economy that has grown up from the same commitment to maximize profits and reduce expenses. If you can acquire specific technical skills you can be contracted for short term employment with no benefits. If you can get a longer term or permanent job with a company often that company will be, itself, a contractor to a large corporation who no longer wants to support anything but high value technical or managerial employees. The wealth of the large technical corporations goes to the owners and regular employees but not the folks in contract positions. There is no longer the option of starting at the bottom and working your way up. There is no bottom. You either come in with high value, short term skills that are good enough to be hired or you will spend your life working for contractors with no future and few or no benefits.

What students want and what students need

The decades of development as outlined above has created a growing gap between what students want and what students need in higher education. This is reducing enrollments across the board but most seriously for community colleges. Colleges and universities are determined to give students a traditional liberal arts education culminating in a baccalaureate degree either through a direct four year enrollment or a transfer from a community college with a university upper division completion. Some students definitely want that at the lowest price that allows them to afford a degree. A larger group of students want a job with whatever skills training that will ensure that. Another significant group of students have identified a hustle that allows them to obtain benefits not easily obtainable in this country without permanent employment that is increasingly hard to get. This ranges from living expenses from financial aid, supplemental living expenses via campus employment, a route to internships with some payment and/or employment at the end, or some day time activity acceptable to parents to retain living at home privileges. Students who spend three to five years enrolled at community colleges may move through all of these justifications for being there. Community college has become for many a gig.

The community college as gig

What if we recognize this as a legitimate redefinition of community colleges?The nature of a gig economy is that the gigs may not offer permanent employment but if you hustle and are good enough it will lead to another, related gig. The gig economy has been the growing form of economic survival since the ’90s and Gen X. Ironically the nature of higher education in the US created the forerunner of the gig economy. On today’s campuses about 50% of the classes are done by lecturers who are the original gig workers operating on 3–4 month contracts with little or no benefits. Today’s college students are not blind. They see what the professional future holds. You need to take whatever you can get and move on to the next gig. I’ve met several Uber and Lyft drivers who were college lecturers who managed to buy a good enough car and moved up to the newer gig opportunities. But we all know those positions are already doomed by the rise of self driving cars. So what is the value of a community college degree? Not much unless it pays in the short term. An electrical engineering degree is another matter as select professional training pays off but that is not for everyone and not for a majority of community college students.

A liberal arts education is valuable. Many students spend years working at this because they want to learn and understand more about the world in which they live. That has been true for millennia. But there is a difference in these goals and the concept of minimal college education that has evolved over the last fifty years in America. The nature of community colleges now is not the bamboo grove or debate center of a Greek city state. Community colleges are judged and its administrators are rewarded on production and the right kind of production.That is degrees, certificates, and transfers to a four year campuses. The college’s success is measured in certificates,degrees (on time), and transfers with quick baccalaureate degrees at the end. Cost cutting has meant the movement from 30% lecturer taught courses forty years ago to 50% now with most students on some form of financial aid and declining rates of “completion”. Administrators see this as failure that must be corrected. This has resulted in millions of dollars spent developing
“pathway systems” to improve the registration and advising process to make sure students move quickly to their designated goal. These systems take advantage of rapid growth in data processing and big data services to track students much more closely. But if the goals of administrations and students are different the results may not be what are expected.

Balancing the new needs and wants

There needs to be a new balance in what community colleges are offering students to meet their perceived needs. Part of the traditional structure matches a percentage of the student population but this is, I think, a minority in most colleges. As community centers these campuses are the place of choice to provide services and elements of a gig economy to students who are trying to supplement what living they can make. They may spend several years in part time student employment taking what classes they can for whatever ends until they find a more lucrative gig. They may then come back to do the same thing again looking for a another gig. This is close to the life time student model that has been seen as a role for the community college but fairly strictly within the confines of the existing traditional degree and certificate programs. Maybe we need to give those up as a primary goal of the institution and adapt to the new world.

From a community perspective there needs to be an open ended “gig career” program. This would provide a much wider range of services to participants with part time work, related training, some interesting (liberal arts and crafts education), health services/insurance, and counseling services without a lot of hassle. With the right counseling and support many of these students may decide to move through to some sort of a certificate if the college becomes more involved as a community work center for diverse gig opportunities. That basically uses the resources and skills resident in these institutions now but simply markets them differently. The change in perspective is very important, however, as the goal would be to provide a socially productive gig for community members preparing for future opportunities or are just marking time to their next gig. The purpose is not to shove them through to satisfy institutional goals but to creatively meet community needs.

The return of the guild

There is one area of current success in select community colleges and that is as a site for union apprenticeship education. Union, state, and community college partnerships make good use of community college facilities and, in some cases, education as components of traditional apprenticeship programs or as options available to the apprentices. But community colleges may treat apprenticeship programs as stray dogs on campus. The irony of this is the success of these programs. While these are often managed by unions directly under industrial training standards, and directly reflect the economic conditions in the community that is served, they can be seen as far more successful than the traditional college model with which they share facilities. At the same time the apprenticeship programs may receive very little to no support from the college. This may be explained by the low rate of return for the college if the apprenticeship program simply rents the use of community college facilities. In some states this may be dictated by formal obligation of the community college(s) to provide facilities to specified unions. That rental may be a very small fraction of the revenue that is generated by standard tuition. But note the changing world described above. The current community college education is disproportionately funded by the students and financial aid, which is a disaster. The model needs to change and that will need to be done by restoring public funding with expanded community support. The relationship with unions and their apprenticeship programs could be used as an important model for the new community college. Instead of forcing students into a traditional degree/certificate path that they are increasingly skeptical about one path to employment is preparation and a closer partnership with union programs. In many places this is already the case for Career and Technical Education courses that often feed into apprenticeship programs. Dependent on the individual college community, this path could become primary.

The changing economic model

The paradigmatic changes in human society driven by IT (incidentally a primary area of job training for community college) will eliminate much if not most traditional lower level employment. This technological transformation will force the the establishment of some form of universal basic income. It simply will no longer be possible to support a post industrial society’s population by the old capitalist based employment system. This is not a problem but a tremendous success and opportunity. While this will drastically change the nature of work to more creative and human skills, everything else will be automated, there will be a growing need for innovative support personnel in positions to maintain the vast automated and robotic systems. This will also move people primarily into the gig economy. Universal basic income will make this even more attractive as it provides the living support to facilitate training and selection of gigs as they become available. And the freedom not to work constantly will open up traditional liberal arts study to the entire population. The community college will then expand their traditional roles in both academics and arts with the addition of skills and crafts in a new balance. This ties directly to a central role for existing union apprenticeship programs as it is expected that unions will expand, not only as corporate or industry unions, but in the guild model of independent masters of crafts. It is a natural evolution to build these new community groups on the broad educational and community support structure of the community college.

The community colleges currently are focused on the dark changes that are reducing enrollments and traditional degree and certificate completion. That is looking only at the past. The future requires a significant change in perspective but that is all. The structures are already there. And from this perspective the future could be very bright.

Written by

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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