Blog: The Educated Reporter

Higher Ed Spotlight: Community College Access, Accountability

We spent the weekend at UCLA for EWA’s Higher Education Seminar for journalists, and one of the most immediately useful sessions might have been with one of our keynote speakers, Inside Higher Ed co-founder and editor Scott Jaschik.

His talk was entitled “Ten Higher Education Stories You Should Cover This Year,” and that’s exactly what he gave us. Seriously, Jaschik laid put a blueprint that would keep an assignment editor happy for months.

I’m not going to provide the full list here (hey, attendance at EWA events has its benefits!). But with Jaschik’s permission I will share one of his pointers, in part because it reflects themes we heard again and again over the course of the two days of panels and workshops.

Community colleges are undergoing both radical change and renewed scrutiny, Jashik says, and they deserve front-burner attention from education writers and reporters. He noted that policymakers are suddenly looking for actual evidence of effectiveness. As a result, governing boards are facing a new level of scrutiny and higher expectations. (Check out this story from the Baltimore Sun for just one example.)

Once the open-access entry point to higher education, community college systems are struggling with a huge influx of non-traditional students. Many of them are working adults looking for short-term certification programs in order to find new careers or hold on to the ones they have. At the same time, community colleges are being flooded with students from four-year universities who find themselves shut out of over-subscribed basic classes at their own campuses.

As a result, there is a new element of tension for community college administrators. In California, a task force assembled to address these issues had some notable recommendations. Among them: community colleges should severely restrict the number of majors that are offered; that students should be required to complete a long-term academic plan before beginning their studies; and students should be required to complete any remedial classes at the start of their studies.

We seem to be skating perilously close to what I would call academic triage. With the shortage of seats, it makes sense for higher education institutions at all levels to try and focus resources on students who are to most likely to benefit But how does that fit with the open-access mission that has been the defining hallmark of community colleges?