Fact or Fiction: Do Community Colleges Actually Offer a Quality Education?

Fact or Fiction: Do Community Colleges Actually Offer a Quality Education?
Community colleges have traditionally had a bad reputation for their quality of education, but new tides may finally be usurping the poor reputation and rumors.

Community colleges have traditionally received a bad reputation for the quality of education they provide, but is that reputation really well-founded? While not all community colleges are created equal to be sure, many are working hard to provide a high-quality education to their students, with a wealth of degree options in fields looking for skilled workers. To ensure the education at community college remains top-rated, benchmarks are being put into place to hold schools accountable for their performance and help students make the best choice in schools for their specific needs.

The Spotlight on Community Colleges

Community colleges have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, thanks to the Obama administration. When President Obama announced his lofty goal to significantly increase the number of college graduates in this country by 2020, he raised community colleges up as an important tool in meeting his goal – an action that community colleges have both lauded and feared. As more people turn to community colleges as a way to achieve higher education, focus on these schools also involves evaluating the quality of education received.

Today, it is not enough for community colleges to boast they are the institutions that put students first. They must go beyond their history of innovative curriculum and teaching strategies to accurately measure how well those strategies actually work. Even without sufficient budgets or tools to meet the requirements of their students, these schools are now on the hot seat to find ways to effectively educate students and get them into the workforce – and prove their success with measurable benchmarks. For some, community colleges are meeting their purpose and meeting it well. For others, community college continues to be seen as a second-class education that simply doesn’t measure up to four-year institutions.

This video looks at the question of whether elite colleges are better than community colleges.

Are Community Colleges Doing their Job?

The answer to that question would be a resounding “no,” if you ask scholar Susan Jacoby. Jacoby was recently a guest on the Daily Circuit on Minnesota Public Radio, discussing the upcoming presidential election. When weighing which candidate college graduates would vote for, Jacoby responded, “One of the things we’re leaving out here is that we’re a country in which a majority of people are not four-year college graduates. One of the things you have is a big middle, that’s gone for a year or two of very bad community colleges. That, while they might prepare you for a job or they may not, you’re not learning very much in them.”

Of course, Jacoby’s comment did not go unheeded by those in the community college community. Rassoul Dastmozd, president of St. Paul College, told NPR, “I just have a hard time understanding the facts being used by Ms. Jacoby to conclude that, you know, that…some community colleges provide one or two years of bad training. From my world view, education is a broad spectrum. There’s a place for everyone. There is a time and place for everyone. You make what you wanna make out of education.”

While Jacoby’s comments received negative comments, they are illustrative of how community colleges are still viewed by some in the world of academia today. However, those views may be outdated, as community colleges now strive to meet the needs of a diverse spectrum of students while training the 21st-century workforce with skills that will effectively compete in a global marketplace. Those who have dedicated their lives and careers to community colleges have been pleased to see the changes taking place.

One of those individuals is Dr. Jill Biden, a long-time community college professor, and wife to former Vice President Joe Biden. Dr. Biden was recently interviewed by NEA Today, where she had the opportunity to talk about some of those changes, as well as the difference support from the current administration has made in helping community colleges meet the needs of their students.

“Community colleges connect the dots,” Dr. Biden told NEA Today. “Granting two-year degrees, providing new skills training and certification, and providing an affordable path for those who want to move on to a four-year university.”

Dr. Biden added that community colleges are a viable path to a baccalaureate degree and address the needs of the workforce most effectively, bringing trained graduates into positions currently available in their region.

“For the last 18 years I have seen firsthand the power of community colleges to change lives,” Dr. Biden said. “I have welcomed students to my classroom from a wide variety of educational, economic and cultural backgrounds, and I have seen how the community college system offers them the same path of opportunity.”

Measuring Success

In order to determine the value of the community college system, it is necessary to move beyond sound bites and dig into what the research really says. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement is one annual benchmark that can be used to evaluate the quality of schools through the student engagement factor. This survey asks community college students specific questions regarding institutional practices and student behavior, according to the CCSSE website.

The American Association of Community Colleges has recently come out with another tool for measuring success. Inside Higher Ed reported last December on the release of the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which will provide a starting point for what is working at community colleges today. The standards took 18 months for AACC to develop and will track two different student cohorts between 2005 and 2009 to identify standards that enhance student success. Schools will then be encouraged to commit to those standards as a means of maintaining consistent quality throughout the community college system.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook @communitycollegereview.

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