Coming Soon: CommUniversities
For the most part, the general public perceives major universities and small community colleges as traveling in different academic circles.
In fact, most folks within the higher ed industry see the food chain on a vertical plane. The spectrum begins at the developmental, postsecondary level in community, technical, county, or municipal colleges and takes a big jump up to major research universities.
Fast-forward to 2010, when American higher education will be transforming competitors into collaborators-mission complementary, mutual growth, win/win strategic alliances-rather than battling in state capitals throughout the nation.
Some of us can still remember a time when junior colleges were actually in vogue. Incredible though it may sound, there were approximately 330 junior colleges in America in 1955. In the following decades, many of these colleges either closed or drifted away from their founding missions as new market forces and opportunities arose.
By the late '60s and early '70s, private two-year women's colleges were beginning to consider co-ed options. Soon field hockey would be joined by football as campus cultures were broadened, enriched, and made more diverse.
In the 1980s a number of regional university learning centers cropped up throughout the nation. Unable to sustain cohort size and enrollment scale, many of these programs had to be liquidated, with difficult teach-outs offered in their place. Small wonder that these colleges were disinclined to rely on the regional university center strategy.
For their part, junior colleges recognized the practical advantages of inviting geographically proximate senior college and university partners to complete the baccalaureate option.
Eventually, surrounding senior colleges and universities recognized the merit in reducing recruitment and infrastructure costs by leveraging community college capacity, while retaining control over academic integrity, reputation, and quality of instruction.
In the '80s, most private junior colleges dropped the pejorative "junior" and either established bachelor degree programs or conducted feasibility assessments to do so.
By the early 1990s community and technical colleges, pressed by students, employers, and guidance counselors, began an active exploration of bachelor degree completion options.
Students and parents increasingly would ask about the availability of a bachelor degree completion option at the two-year college-where students spent their two most formative years of the undergraduate learning experience.
The number of two-year junior colleges has now dwindled to less than 100. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of junior colleges have fallen by the wayside or merged, consolidated, or restructured-bearing little resemblance to their pure two-year college heritage.
Still other two-year colleges latched on to a two-plus-two baccalaureate completion strategy, aimed at preserving their primary two-year college mission and building several new bachelor degree completion options in fields of academic excellence, faculty strength, curriculum rigor, and, importantly, student need and employment demand.
From the faculty perspective, the two-plus-two option provided an opportunity for honing their professional skills and enhancing their scholarship. Of equal importance, these two-year colleges recognized the need to build a baccalaureate culture in the classrooms, labs, and libraries where faculty and students teach and learn.
We now know that students have different learning styles and there is a sizable segment of students who have achieved academic confidence and recognition gradually-progressively-i.e., two steps for student academic success (associate's first, and second a bachelor's degree).
Paradoxical though it may seem, state colleges and universities have become frequent adversaries to community college bachelor degrees.
From Massachusetts to Nevada and Utah to New Jersey, state college and university crusaders have voiced strong opposition-claiming this is nothing more than mission creep run amuck. Predicated in part on concerns over academic integrity, some four-year colleges and universities sought to constrain the proliferation of public two-year college bachelor degree programs. After all, these same senior colleges and universities justifiably fear the cannibalization of future enrollments.
Over the last few years, institutional and political opposition has somewhat dissipated in the face of state legislative mandates, in Florida and other states. Placed between a rock and a hard place, state colleges and universities are increasingly partnering with local community colleges for the mutual benefit of students, employers, and the partnering institutions.
In their earliest form, freestanding community colleges were typically developed in geographic locations where the closest senior college or university may have been several hundred miles away.
Over time, these community colleges developed additional broad-based bachelor capstone options-yet they remained primarily public two-year colleges by preserving their two-year mission and focus.
In Nevada, the Community College of Southern Nevada and Great Basin College were early adopters. In neighboring Utah, however, the former Dixie College was renamed Dixie State College of Utah.
Over the past decade, the preponderance of community college bachelor programs have been devoted to business, liberal arts, education, health science, criminal justice, engineering, and technology. This history closely paralleled the public's perception of degree inflation-that is, the associate's degree is simply not worth what it used to be 40 years ago.
These contemporary community college bachelor degree completion programs include both public and private university partners-such as Fairleigh Dickinson University and Warren County Community College in New Jersey, Berkshire Community College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in western Massachusetts, and Roosevelt University and the City Colleges of Chicago.
Of significance, these strategic alliances are no longer limited to the geopolitical boundaries of states. Just consider the notion of partners as diverse as Sheridan College in Wyoming, Broome Community College in Binghamton, N.Y., and Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts-co-joined in an automotive and diesel technology, marine technology, and alternative energy consortium.
From the taxpayers' perspective, "CommUniversities" make fundamental economic sense because they transform undue competition into profitable collaboration through non-duplication of program effort-thereby eliminating redundancy, and making higher education more affordable.
As we peer over the horizon of the 21st century, it is our hope and expectation that the community college baccalaureate megatrend will continue to evolve to a higher state of collaboration and collegiality-better serving the educational consumer. Some day in the not-too-distant future, we can conceive of a seamless pathway, introducing elementary and middle school students to career fields and a progressive system of higher learning-two steps for success at your local CommUniversity.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
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