Community Colleges Show the Way

For over a century now, some of the brightest minds in the United States have wrestled with the question: What is college for? Many colleges and universities appear somewhat confused on the matter. They promote themselves simultaneously as job preparation programs, centers of research, places of spiritual and intellectual growth, bands of crusaders trying to fix what’s wrong with the world, and merely places to have fun.

One group of colleges, however, does not suffer from this confusion. Community colleges have a narrower focus—preparing students either for jobs or for transfer to universities. They are thereby able to do their job more effectively and with more limited resources. Other higher education institutions, such as the University of North Carolina system, would do well to learn from their example.

The capabilities of North Carolina’s community colleges were recently highlighted by how they dealt with an acute financial strain during the 2009-2010 school year.

In the fall of 2009, there was a surge in enrollment and a fall in funding so severe that Randolph Community College president Robert Shackleford dubbed it a “perfect storm.”

Randolph Community College, consisting of a half-dozen or so brick buildings in a rural area of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, serves around ten thousand students per year. During the period in question, enrollment increased 16 percent while state funding dropped 11 percent. The college would be reimbursed for the increase in students but, since community colleges are funded in arrears, not for many months.

This predicament led President Shackleford to ask some professors to teach as many as eight three-credit-hour classes per week in a single semester. That meant 24 contact hours—hours in front of students—per week.

Eight classes a week is twice the load that faculty at even the most teaching-oriented UNC schools are expected to carry. It is four times the load that is expected at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. Indeed, a new study by the Pope Center found that the average professor in the UNC system teaches only about 2.5 classes per semester. UNC system officials claim that the average is 3.37, though they won’t release the details of how that figure was arrived at. 

However, for community colleges, the Randolph experience represents only one class over the usual limit of twenty-one hours or seven courses. According to North Carolina community college system executive vice president Kennon Briggs, Randolph’s faculty workload was fairly typical system-wide at that time.

Indeed, the situation at North Carolina’s community colleges in 2009 would hardly have received any attention if the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting body, had not been inspecting Randolph at the time. SACS recommends no more than fifteen contact hours, but will allow up to twenty-one hours. After that, it will issue a warning, which is what happened to Randolph.

Randolph Community College will likely be fine in its effort to obtain and keep accreditation. It has since hired thirty-five new faculty members and reduced the average teaching load to eighteen contact hours, an average of six classes per instructor. Shackleford hopes the college will be fully accredited when SACS convenes in June.

Even so, there is an important lesson to pull from this episode. Community colleges are getting a lot of output in terms of student learning for minimal investment.

Consider the sheer numbers: During the 2009-2010 school year, community colleges enrolled just over 250,000 full time equivalent students (a statistical measure based on total student hours—there were 847,000 students total), received slightly less than $1 billion from the state, and spent about $1.7 billion. At the same time, the UNC system enrolled just under 200,000 students, received $2.7 billion from state taxpayers, and spent about $8.3 billion.

This means that UNC spends three times more per student taught in taxpayer money and over six times more in total money than community colleges.

How does the community college system achieve this marvelous efficiency?

Basically, there are few frills. Community colleges have rather narrow goals and don’t invest in much else.  At Randolph, “Eighty-eight percent of our budget is for instruction,” Shackleford said. “Our faculty’s job is to teach.” By staying focused on teaching students, community colleges have avoided the mission creep that has driven up prices so much at UNC schools.

There are no proliferating women’s centers or diversity centers, no extravagant student unions and gyms, few spacious and well-manicured lawns, no abundant and highly paid administrators, no research, and no gigantic football stadiums at community colleges. Community colleges have decided that those things are not for them, and they’re reaping massive savings.

And when it comes to the few things that community colleges are doing, they seem to be doing them well. One might reasonably expect UNC professors, holding more prestigious positions and usually more advanced degrees, to produce a better classroom experience. This isn’t necessarily the case.

In an essay titled “Harvard University of Community College? Why the Choice Isn’t As Crazy As It Sounds”, John Hrabe recently explained how a focus on instruction can give community colleges an edge not just in cost but also in quality:

A decade ago, for just $12 per unit, I completed my general education requirements at a Los Angeles-area community college. At Moorpark College, I learned public speaking from one of the nation’s most accomplished speech programs, which has won nine national championships in 40 years. Had I taken the same class down the street at UCLA, I would have been taught by a second-year graduate assistant with no teaching experience.

Or worse, I might have been taught by a tenured university professor. Just as price doesn’t correlate to value, academic publications are not the best bellwether of quality instruction. The most accomplished academics are often the worst teachers. Without the pressure to publish, community college professors have more time to invest in their students.

In spite of Hrabe’s vote of confidence, North Carolina’s community colleges are treated in many ways like unwanted stepchildren. They receive neither prestige nor very much money. It’s sometimes embarrassing even to be associated with them—to attend a community college is to have failed to make it into a “real” college. (If you don’t believe me, try poking fun at a friend who goes to a community college and see how long he remains your friend).

But, as Hrabe puts it, the choice between Harvard (or, say, UNC-Chapel Hill) and community college is, indeed, a choice worth considering. Those who go to a community college generally learn a valuable skill and graduate with minimal debt and minimal expense to the taxpayer. From a public policy perspective, everyone wins, except perhaps Harvard or UNC-Chapel Hill.

And now, thanks to looming budget cuts, the UNC system may have to become more like the community colleges through no choice of its own. System president Thomas Ross said proposed cuts of “17.4 percent” (arguably more like 15.5 percent) to the state’s public four-year colleges are so severe that they amount to the total state appropriations for five whole UNC campuses—UNC-Asheville, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington, Western Carolina University and Winston-Salem State University.

Ross said the cuts “could not be absorbed without inflicting irreparable damage to our academic quality and reputation.” However, if UNC schools had the focus that community colleges do, such cuts wouldn’t be nearly so difficult.