Community Colleges Move Away From K12 And Students Suffer

Just as teachers’ colleges moved away from K-12 education over the past century, community colleges have distanced themselves from secondary schools. Today, over 45% of undergraduates attend a community college, an increase of 10% in the last decade . This number has been increasing because of heavy use of community colleges in fast growing states like California, Texas, and Florida. California, for example, enrolls two-thirds of its college freshmen into the community college system . After 1960, community colleges became the primary institution for increasing college opportunity. Originally, community colleges were funded like public schools with mostly local support, state supplements, and no tuition. In California, community colleges originated as part of the local K-12 system and were considered the 13th and 14th grades. For some students, however, the four-year systems dictated much of their curricula in order to facilitate transfer . It was not until the 1950s that community colleges across the nation began to have their own governing boards and some were termed junior colleges. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of community colleges more than doubled and enrollment increased from 217,000 to 1,630,000. Between 1969 and 1974, community college enrollment increased by 174 percent contrasted to 47 percent for four-year institutions .

This growth was accompanied by a much expanded mission and a loss of interaction with and focus on secondary education. The colleges expanded their mission to vocational education and community service. New and neglected populations beyond recent high school graduates were added, including displaced housewives, immigrants, older adults, and laid-off industrial workers. The comprehensive community college sent fewer and less clear signals to high school students about necessary academic preparation and skills needed to obtain vocational certificates. The impact of this detachment from secondary education has been profound, with many students entering community college unprepared for its demands. For example, 95 percent of first-time students enrolled in Baltimore City Community Colleges (BCCC) in the fall of 2000 required remediation in math, English, and reading. Nationally, about 60 percent of students entering community colleges require remediation, a major risk factor for non-completion of degree or certificate programs (Adelman, 2001). Of all the English and math courses offered at the community college, 29 percent and 32 percent, respectively, are remedial (Cohen and Brawer, 2003). The majority of the students enrolled in these remedial courses (60%) are of traditional college age and enter the college directly after high school. This implies that the high level of remediation is not just a result of having to refresh the skills of individuals who have been out of school for a while, but also of having to teach skills that were not received in high school. Increasingly, four-year institutions transfer their remediation to community colleges. At least ten states currently discourage four-year universities from offering remedial education by not providing state funding .

Compounding this remediation problem is the fact that many of the students who enter community colleges today fit the characteristics of those who are less likely to have access to college information and preparation. Community colleges serve a large proportion of low-income, ethnic minority, and first-generation college students (Tinto, 2004). According to Stanford’s Bridge Project, student’s from lower SES levels and ethnic minority students are less likely to receive college counseling, be placed in college-preparation courses, and obtain information about college admissions and placement (Kirst and Venezia, 2004).

The lack of college preparation and information possessed by students entering community college is reflected in low transfer and degree completion rates. Although 71 percent of beginning community college students plan to obtain a bachelor’s degree, only about 25 percent transfer to a four-year school (Bradburn and Hurst, 2001). Several studies demonstrate that students who enter community colleges and seek a four-year degree have much lower completion rates than students who proceed directly to a four-year school (Fry, 2004; Cabrera, 2004). Whereas 63 percent of students attending a four-year school earn a bachelor’s degree, only 18% of those who begin in a community college do so (Wellman, 2002).

Despite low transfer and completion rates, community colleges continue to be an attractive option because of their proximity to students’ residence, low enrollment fees, and “open door” policy that admits students with few entrance standards. Unfortunately, students often mistake the “open door” policy to mean that the college has few academic standards. High school students often believe that they are free to enter any community college-level courses, they choose. (Rosenbaum, 2001). However, community colleges often use placement exams for specialties like nursing as well as for general subjects. Stanford’s Bridge Project found that most secondary school students going to community colleges were unaware of college placement standards, and thought their minimal high school graduation standards were adequate preparation (Kirst, Venezia, and Antonio, 2004). High school students view community college as a souped-up high school, even though community colleges must align their courses to four-year transfer standards. Most beginning students do not even learn that they need to take a placement exam until they enter the community college. High school counseling for prospective community college students is particularly weak. They are not told that their high school achievement will affect the amount of time it will take for them to finish transfer requirements, thus decreasing their chances of ever completing college. In short, the colleges that are closest to high school students have stepped as far away from them, with respect to academic preparation, as any four-year institution.

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