The Myths of the Community College
by Sean A. Fanelli, PhD., GSAS '70
President Emeritus, Nassau Community College
Thinking of teaching at a community college? They are one of the most misunderstood sectors in academe. Shunned by some as a last resort for students who are academically deficient and have not been accepted by a four-year college; poorly portrayed in movies and TV sitcoms; the butt of ill-placed humor; and thought of as colleges that offer only vocational courses. Each of these is just a myth!
These myths can quickly be put to rest. Community colleges enroll a full spectrum of students with varying degrees of academic talent and abilities. Community colleges assess students and place them in courses appropriate to their academic skill level. Some students will need to complete one or more remedial courses before going on to college-level courses,
but an equal number will enter honors courses. The curricula at community colleges include a wide array of courses in the liberal arts, as well as career-oriented courses. These courses are just as challenging as those offered at four-year colleges.
Educators from other countries come to the United States to study our community college “movement” and bring back what they have observed so that they may emulate these colleges in their countries.
There were several defining events in the history of higher education in the United States, but none were as dramatic and impactful as the start of the community college movement.
Some community colleges began almost 100 years ago as “junior colleges” meant to deal with the large numbers of high school graduates seeking a college education in over-crowded colleges. In the 1940s, at the conclusion of World War II, these junior colleges and newly formed two-year colleges began to enroll greater numbers of students. The majority were
veterans using their GI Bill benefits to come to college. Some sought training for a career, while others enrolled with the intention of transferring to a four-college or university.
By the 1970s, the mission (and the name—community college) had evolved to serve three purposes:
• transfer programs which parallel the first two years of a baccalaureate program;
• career/technical programs to prepare students for a career;
• and continuing education noncredit courses for individuals and for corporations in the local community.
Their numbers grew dramatically as state after state founded a multitude of community colleges and community college districts. Today there are almost 1,200 community colleges in our nation serving a highly diverse student population.
One metric that sets community colleges apart from other sectors of higher education is the older age of the average student. Many are nontraditional students who could not attend college immediately after high school graduation. Many are the first in their families to attend a college. It is no wonder that community colleges are known as “democracy’s colleges.”
The transfer mission of a community college is becoming more and more prominent in these difficult economic times.
At Nassau Community College, a school with 25,000 students, almost 70 percent of the graduates go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Many community colleges and four-year colleges have articulation agreements that guarantee the acceptance of all courses taken at a community college. The credits earned at Nassau are accepted without reservation at four-year colleges or universities.
Some colleges have dual admissions programs, where a student accepted into a community college is jointly accepted into a four-year college with all the rights and privileges of a freshman at the four-year college.
Fordham University and Nassau Community College are alike in one important aspect. The standards of excellence for accreditation that are applied to community colleges are exactly the same as those for four-year colleges and universities.
Community colleges can best be described as “learning colleges.” The central and preeminent activity at a community college is first and foremost teaching. Research is encouraged, but these colleges are teaching institutions. Faculty who come to a community college are rewarded with a fulfilling teaching experience. It is in the community college that students get a strong foundation in learning—for life. It is in the community college that career-bound students will be taught skills along with the liberal arts. It is in the community college that faculty in the classroom and those who serve students outside of the classroom really make a difference in the lives of their students.
It is in community colleges that you will find a number of exciting and innovative teaching modalities, including online learning, Web-enriched courses, learning communities, multidisciplinary courses, team teaching and service learning, all of which are supported by creative learning platforms and modern instructional technology. Many of the faculty at community colleges engage in research, which often involves pedagogy, as well as research in their discipline.
Community colleges differ from some four-year institutions in a very significant way. In a community college, all of the instruction is provided by faculty who are hired solely for that purpose—there are no graduate teaching assistants. Typically, the master’s degree is a requirement. In most cases, however, the doctoral or terminal degree is preferred. Job opportunities abound at community colleges—both full- and part-time. If you are interested in a position at a community college, a great way to start is as an adjunct faculty member.
Since their inception, community colleges have grown in recognition and stature. But recently that has increased dramatically. The real value and purpose of community colleges are being recognized by greater and greater numbers of persons in government, the higher education community and the general population. This recognition is best illustrated by the 12.6 million students who are registered in one of these 1,200 colleges. Forty-six percent of all U.S. undergraduate students are currently enrolled in a community college.
Community college enrollments have grown by 15 percent in each of the last several years.
The story of community colleges remains dynamic, as they continue to grow and meet the multiplicity of educational goals of their students. By doing so, they continue to dispel the myths that sometimes surround them.
As the nation struggles with a weak economy, community colleges are well-positioned to provide the liberal-arts-enriched work force development programs that they have been providing for years. Business and industry have come to rely more and more upon community colleges for their workforces.
Indeed, the future bodes well for community colleges—and for those who aspire to teach in them.