Community Colleges Should Stick to Obama's Plan

On July 14 when President Barack Obama spoke to an audience of students, educators, and displaced autoworkers at Macomb Community College on the outskirts of Detroit he pledged a new, $12 billion investment in community colleges. It would be the boldest federal action in decades on behalf of the nation's underappreciated, underfunded system of public two-year institutions. Community colleges play a key role in Obama's ambitious plan to retrain unemployed workers and create an additional 5 million college-degree holders over the next decade, helping the American workforce regain its status as the best educated in the world. While older Americans have more college degrees than their counterparts in any other country, Americans age 25 to 34 rank 14th in the world in college-degree attainment.

The proposal, now being debated in Congress, could usher in a heyday for community colleges—if two-year institutions don't blow it by choosing this very moment to abandon their core strength. In recent years some community colleges have moved away from their roots as low-cost, open-access institutions and tried to compete in the big leagues by offering bachelor's degrees. Take Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, which educates more Latino students than any other college in America. A few years, ago it lost its "community" and became just Miami Dade College, grantor of four-year degrees on top of the traditional associate's degrees and certificate programs.

Others have made similar moves. The Community College of Southern Nevada erased "community" from its name in 2007. Northern New Mexico Community College and Bellevue Community College in Washington recently did the same. Only a few weeks after Obama's speech, community colleges in Michigan were pushing for state legislation that would give them the right to grant bachelor's degrees. "It's definitely becoming more common," says Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. "And it's definitely controversial. Some people say they're giving students more options, but others say it threatens the character of what community colleges are all about."

Like many bad ideas, this one usually begins with good intentions. Former community colleges justify their actions by starting small, offering bachelor's degrees in a few programs, and pledging—sincerely—to stay focused on serving a diverse student population at a reasonable price.

But once a college starts down this road, there's no turning back. Inevitably, pressure will build to add more expensive degree programs, erect shiny new buildings, and branch out into graduate education and research. Alumni will clamor for a Division I sports teams and professors will agitate for less time in the classroom and more in the lab. In a bid to increase name recognition and prestige, administrators will scheme to become more selective by admitting only "good" students. They'll define success in terms of how many undergraduates they don't enroll, instead of how many they do. Good intentions fade, while the relentless logic of colleges wanting to be more of everything—famous, exclusive, and expensive—remains.

Utah Technical College, built in Orem in 1977, shows how this can happen. In 1987, it became Utah Valley Community College. Only six years later, in 1993, it added four-year degrees and became Utah Valley State College. Last year it became Utah Valley University, grantor of master's degrees. The Division I men's basketball team plays in an 8,500-seat arena and enjoys a raft of corporate sponsors. Bachelor's degrees have grown to almost half of all degrees conferred. But the six-year graduation rate is only 15 percent. (Brad Plothow, a spokesman for Utah Valley University, attributes the rate to student demographics and disparities in their record keeping.)

Curtis Ivery, president of Wayne County Community College in Detroit—located not far from the site of Obama's speech—calls this kind of evolution "mission creep." "If we're not careful," says Ivery, "we're going to erode the link between community colleges and the low-income, minority, and disenfranchised students they've traditionally served."

Community colleges that are starting four-year programs say that their changing mission is a healthy development. The new degrees tend to be in emerging occupational fields that traditional four-year universities don't always offer, says Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association. "Community colleges are ready to step up and fill that void," she says.

In a way, the trend is understandable. Community colleges have been mocked and marginalized for decades, given the least money to do the most difficult job. Too often, they're punch lines, synonymous with "college of last resort," settings for sitcoms like Community, debuting this Thursday on NBC. One can imagine an ambitious two-year college president looking at his counterpart in the fat and happy flagship university across town and thinking "That could be me someday."

But in a time when college is increasingly unaffordable, we don't need community colleges grabbing for the bottom rung of the long, slippery status ladder exemplified by the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings. In an era of rising economic instability and unemployment, we need colleges that specialize in teaching adults with careers and families. We need flexible, low-cost institutions with close ties to local businesses—colleges that know how to get students into well-paying jobs. America has enough ivory towers. We don't need to build any more.

The Obama plan could be the catalyst for a broad transformation of community colleges into truly modern institutions, nimble centers of learning that help students to study online, in-person, and in the workplace. The president knows that we can't achieve a major increase in the number of Americans with college degrees by sending more people to four-year universities that have no intention of admitting more students and that charge the price of buying a new luxury car every year.

But we can't invest in community colleges if they start leaving the sector in droves. "It's ironic," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, "that just when the national spotlight is on our colleges, some want to transition away."

Why can't two-year institutions with aspirations of greatness be happy as just that: great two-year institutions? Why not embrace their calling to provide job training and low-cost, high-quality teaching to a diverse range of students—rather than run away from it? When did "community" become a dirty word?