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date: 30 March 2020

Faculty Talk About Teaching at the Community College

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines what it means to teach at a community college from the viewpoint of two experienced faculty members. The comprehensive community college holds a unique place in American higher education, as it performs many functions, including workforce development, transfer education, and often developmental (remedial) education. The open-admissions nature of the community college gives anyone access to a college education or other training. That access results in a classroom that is different from those at four-year institutions. This article examines what it means to teach at the community college level by examining the community college and its place in American higher education. It includes an exploration of how open admission affects the classroom and the teacher. It discusses how the multiple missions of the community college, as well as political and funding issues, influence the faculty and their primary responsibility of teaching.

Keywords: community college, college teaching, higher education open access, workforce development, junior college

What do a comic, an all-star professional basketball player, a famous geneticist and genomic researcher, a movie star, and a member of Congress have in common? They all began their academic careers at community colleges. Billy Crystal (Nassau Community College—New York), Sheryl Swopes (South Plains College—Texas), J. Craig Venter (College of San Mateo—California), Tom Hanks (Chabot College—California), and Senator Marco Rubio (Santa Fe College—Florida) each attended a community college (American Association of Community Colleges [AACC], n.d., c; & AACC, n.d., d). Some transitioned to four-year universities and graduate schools. All have attained a high level of success in their chosen fields, and their time at the community college contributed to that success. Tom Hanks put it succinctly in an opinion piece in the New York Times: “That place [Chabot College] made me what I am today” (Hanks, 2015, para. 11).

It was Tom Hanks’s instructor at Chabot College who made the difference in his life. Teaching at the community college holds that promise: that the instructor can make a real difference in the life of a student. What does it mean to teach at a community college? To first understand that question, it is important to examine the role of the community college in American higher education and what makes a community college different from other educational institutions.

What Is a Community College?

What is a community college? When first founded, they were called “junior colleges” and included many different types of institutions, such as local campuses of universities where lower-level work was offered, separate two-year colleges supported by states, and private two-year schools. In 1922, the American Association of Junior Colleges defined the “junior college” as a two-year institution offering college credit (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker, 2014). Providing vocational training alone was not sufficient for a school to be considered a junior college. The institution had to offer college-level courses.

Some community colleges began as adjunct institutions to local secondary schools. Many physically began their classes at these secondary institutions (Cohen et al., 2014). For a time, the term “junior college” was used to refer to two-year institutions that were private or church-related, while “community college” referred to public institutions. These days, the term “community college” refers to all two-year colleges (Cohen et al., 2014). Some two-year colleges emphasize technical and vocational education, while others focus on college-preparatory courses. Comprehensive community colleges include both emphases. However, as some two-year schools are beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees, it is becoming less clear exactly what a community college is (Chen, 2015).

Community colleges play an important role in higher education. In a 2013 study, Morest found that community colleges educate 50% of American undergraduates (Morest, 2013). Community college offers an affordable way to begin a college education. Average annual tuition and fees in 2013–2014 were $3357. In-state tuition at a four-year institution averaged $9139 (AACC, Feb. 2015). However, in the future, an imbalance in public funding may jeopardize this affordability factor. In 2012–2013, community colleges received only 15% of their funding from the federal government, even though they educated half of the undergraduate population (AACC, Feb. 2015). Such an imbalance in funding can lead to higher tuition and fees. Nonetheless, earning an associate’s degree can pay off financially. In 2012, there was a return of $25.90 in earning power for every tuition dollar spent (Economic Modeling Specialists International [EMSI], 2014, p. 8). Graduates with an associate’s degree can expect to earn almost $11,000 a year more than someone with only a high school diploma (EMSI, 2014, p. 15).

History of Higher Education in the United States

Higher education in what would become the United States (then known as the British Colonies) began in 1636 with the founding of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By 1775, the start of the Revolutionary War, there were nine institutions of higher education in the Colonies: Harvard, William and Mary, Collegiate School (Yale), Academy of Philadelphia (University of Philadelphia), College of New Jersey (Princeton), King’s College (Columbia), College of Rhode Island (Brown), Queen’s College (Rutgers), and Dartmouth. These institutions were modeled after the British universities of Cambridge and Oxford (History of American Higher Education, n.d.). Education was exclusively for males, generally from families of wealth, since all funding came from tuition payments. Most institutions had some religious affiliation. The primary goal of education during this period was to train members of the clergy, many of whom later became political leaders. It was these graduates who helped to shape the early history of higher education in the new United States (Eckel & King, 2004).

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the earliest proponent of education for most citizens. In his plan of limited federal government, the states would be responsible for this function. Since the U.S. Constitution does not mention education as a right, the federal government has played a somewhat limited role in higher education. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 gave land to the states to establish public universities. Otherwise, federal oversight was minimal until World War II, when the federal government funded research for military purposes at many universities (Atkinson & Blanpied, 2008).

During the first decades of the twentieth century, economic difficulties led to the closing of numerous institutions. Research, rather than teaching, became a priority at many universities, particularly after the infusion of government money during World War II.

The GI Bill of 1944 allocated federal money to higher education as a way to help returning soldiers reintegrate into society (Eckel & King, 2004). Beginning in the 1970s, federal spending on higher education increased even more, as the emphasis on science and engineering grew in response to the race to space between the United States and the Soviet Union (Eckel & King, 2004).

The growth of the internet and online education in the last years of the twentieth century has created new college opportunities. The rise of for-profit institutions has also changed the landscape of higher education. While there have been problems with some of these for-profit institutions financially, and there are continuing questions about the quality of some institutions, they have opened education to a wider audience.

History of the Community College in Higher Education

The first known community college was Joliet Junior College (JJC—Illinois), established in 1901. The new institution was a collaboration between the local high school and the University of Chicago. JJC offered both the first two years of a college education as well as education beyond high school for those not seeking a four-year degree. The community college concept was formalized under President Truman in 1947 by the Commission on Higher Education, which proposed a network of community colleges (Hutcheson, 2007). By the 1960s, there were over 450 community colleges. In 2015, there were almost 1,123 community colleges. When branch campuses were included, the number increased to 1,600 (AACC, May 2015). Community colleges offered (and continue to offer) a wide range of degree options, from single courses to certificates, to two-year transfer degrees.

The Community College Student

Who is the community college student? The mean age is 28, and over 57% are women. At least 36% are first-generation students (the first in their families to attend college), while 17% are single parents. Community college students are 45–50% of all undergraduates and 42% of first-time first-year students. Community college populations are generally more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than are students at four-year institutions; 61% of Native American, 57% of Hispanic, 52% of African American, and 43% of Asian/Pacific Islander college students attend a community college. Many community college students work full time, and most are commuters. Over 72% receive some sort of financial aid (AACC, Feb. 2015). Community college students tend to be more underprepared, with some students specifically attending a community college to take developmental courses, since these remedial-level courses may no longer be offered at the state institutions (Morest, 2013).

Community College Faculty

It can be difficult to generalize about community college faculty since they are probably more diverse in several ways than faculty at four-year institutions (Robinson, Byrd, Louis, & Bonner, 2013). In general, though, community college faculty hold a wider variety of degrees, tend to be female, and at many community colleges are more ethnically diverse (AACC, n.d., b). The trend of hiring minorities, however, is beginning to reverse. As the pool of minority faculty available shrinks, community colleges are able to hire fewer minorities (Rifkin, n.d.).

Most community college faculty hold a master’s degree, and many have experience in the occupation related to their discipline (often referred to as “real-world experience”). In some disciplines, however, over 25% of faculty hold a doctorate (AACC, n.d., b). In 2009, 54% of community college faculty were women (Cohen et al., 2014). Community college faculty are also aging, with a median age of 50 (Cohen et al., 2014).

About 70% are part-time, and even many full-time faculty hold outside jobs. Some faculty work in their applied fields to maintain their skills and enrich the classroom experience. In the early days of the community college, many faculty had some experience in the secondary system, but by the 1970s, more instructors were coming directly from graduate school. For community college faculty, the primary job is teaching (Cohen et al., 2014).

Educational Trends Affecting the Community College

In 1967, in California, then–Governor Reagan questioned the value of the liberal arts education focus of the university system in a major policy speech. He proposed that the purpose of a university education was to prepare a graduate to get a job. The idea that a liberal arts education was of little value entered the American consciousness and began to define the college experience (Berrett, 2015). This switch to an emphasis on vocationally oriented programs benefitted the community college.

Training for adult workers has become more important as the economy has changed, and workers look to transition to new fields (Bragg, 2013). Community colleges have become an important source for such short-term training. Community colleges are often able to quickly develop targeted training programs, particularly for new industries in their geographic area. For instance, when a new casino opened in Anne Arundel County (Maryland), the local community college partnered with the casino to offer casino dealer training (Anne Arundel Community College, n.d.).

In 2003, the federal government established the College and Career Transition Initiative (CCTI) to strengthen the role of community colleges in vocational transitions, particularly for high school students. Community colleges have also been involved in training individuals with disabilities. Community colleges have been criticized for focusing on lower-wage jobs and not offering college credit for much of this training. Nonetheless, workforce development has become an important component of the community college mission (Juntunen & Bailey, 2013).

A concern over the need for highly trained workers in scientific areas has led to a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Community colleges have been an important element in training those who work in STEM. Those who earn a bachelor’s degree in STEM areas often begin their academic careers at a community college. Community colleges have tailored STEM curricula to fit the needs of local industry (Salzman & Van Noy, 2014). For example, Macomb Community College (Illinois) partnered with automotive companies to offer job-specific training (Hagedorn & Purnamasari, 2012).

In addition to an emphasis on workforce development, community colleges have become the place in higher education where remediation occurs. Over 60% percent of community college students require remedial education in math, writing, or reading (Bailey & Cho, 2010). Because numerous majors have strict prerequisites that require high levels of math or writing, students who need remediation may find their options at four-year institutions limited. Community colleges help students prepare for these majors and ultimately, these types of careers (Bettinger & Long, 2005; Cohen et al., 2014). However, the need for extensive remediation affects completion rates and also has an impact on finances. Students must pay college tuition for remedial or developmental courses, yet these courses carry no academic credit and are not transferable. Many community college students do not complete the developmental sequence because of the cost, life events, weak skills, or because they become discouraged (Bailey & Cho, 2010).

Another important trend in higher education affecting the community college is the recent focus on degree completion (United States Department of Education, 2011). The federal government generally uses three years for completing a two-year degree as the benchmark for funding programs. Only completions at the starting institution are used to calculate this benchmark. It may be unrealistic to expect all community college students to complete a 60-credit degree in even three years. To accomplish this goal, a student would have to complete at least 10 credits during each of the fall and winter terms. In other words, students must complete at least three courses (9 credits) each semester. The U.S. Department of Education specifies that a course should include at least 10 hours of work per week for a 15-week term in order to grant credit for three (3) semester hours (Middle States Commission on Higher Education [MSCHE], 2009). Using this formula means at least 30 hours of study time per week if a student is to successfully complete three courses (9 credits) in a semester.

Many community college students are considered at high risk for not completing an associate’s degree (AACC, n.d., a). Students often require more time in order to succeed, especially if they have just completed developmental courses or if English is their second language. To add at least 30 hours to a week with a full-time job (and sometimes a part-time job as well), commuting, and in some cases raising children, may be challenging for many students. In many states, state and county funding also depends on the number of degrees awarded (outcomes- or performance-based funding). This approach may result in students’ being encouraged to attempt what may be an unrealistic course load (Murphy, Cook, Johnson, & Weston, 2014).

Dual enrollment of high school students in post-secondary institutions is a growing trend (Heath, 2008). If students can graduate from high school with some college credits, they are more likely to go on to complete a college degree (Radunzel, Noble, & Wheeler, 2014). In 2010–2011, 53% of all higher education institutions had some form of dual enrollment, with almost 1.3 million high school students involved (Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013, p. 3). In states where students do not pay for dual enrollment, there can be a big cost savings for students in getting a degree (Marken et al., 2013).

Many states have programs designed to encourage this dual enrollment. Students enrolled in the Middle College Program at Prince George’s Community College (Maryland) complete their four-year public high school degree and simultaneously earn their Associates of Arts degree at graduation. The Gateway Early College High School program at Maricopa Community College (Arizona) encourages students to complete both a high school diploma and an Associates of Arts degree (AA) within five years. In Washington State, students in the eleventh and twelfth grades can accelerate their college education by completing courses at local community colleges through the Running Start Program.

A final trend in higher education that has a major impact on the community college is “outcome accountability.” Evaluating the success of the community college becomes a difficult venture, given all of the roles the community college must play in the community (Clotfelter, Ladd, Muschkin, & Vigdor, 2013). Students come and go and take courses at multiple institutions; sometimes transferring credits, sometimes not. Tracking students can be difficult. Since success measures focus on graduation rates, the individual student’s goals and success in meeting those personal goals do not factor into the statistics or governmental (usually county and state) funding.

Community colleges suffer from “mission creep” as more and more is expected of them. Community colleges are expected to fulfill the following missions: academic/transfer, career development, workforce development, student services, dual enrollment with local high schools, and community services (McPhail & McPhail, 2006).

Teaching at the Community College

Teaching is the core of the job description for community college faculty. Teaching at the community college level presents multiple challenges, which are related to these trends in education, but also to opportunities not found in traditional four-year institutions.

Open Access

Community colleges have few, if any, requirements for admission other than paying the application fee. This open-access policy is one characteristic that distinguishes the community college from traditional four-year institutions, which typically have multiple requirements for admission, including acceptable standardized test results. The open nature of community college admissions has several results. One is that community college students come with a wide range of motivations for attending, including lower costs, job training, or advancement at work. Some students want to take advantage of dual enrollment in high school. Others are retired and want to explore another career or just take courses for very low or no fees, which many community colleges offer their older attendees. At our school, those over 60 years old can register and pay no tuition, so there are often older students who just want to learn a subject (Diane Finley [DF]).

Community colleges give students a way to achieve their varied goals and, in doing so, to improve their lives. Kapitulik (2013) refers to this undertaking as the “social justice mission” of the community college (p. 367). This social justice mission dovetails with the “students first” mission of most community colleges. Consequently, in any given class, a professor may have students attending for vastly different reasons and at vastly different junctures in their lives. The youngest student I taught, for example, had just turned 15, while the oldest was retooling for a second career at age 66 (Sherry Kinslow [SK]).

In addition to differences in motivation for community college attendance, an even more impactful result of open access is the lack of students’ preparedness for academic work and lack of understanding of what it means to be a college student. Because of the open-admission policies, community college students are generally required to take placement tests, and many must complete developmental (i.e., remedial) courses. A recent study found that 68% of students entering a community college took at least one developmental course (Community College Research Center [CCRC], n.d.). There are generally no prerequisites for college-level credit courses other than these basic developmental courses. That means that students may enter credit courses with basic reading and writing skills; yet for most classes, college-level reading comprehension and writing are necessary for a student’s success.

Many students come to the community college with no knowledge of what it means to be in college, especially first-generation college students. I have had students ask me to three-hole-punch my handouts because “that is what they did at my high school” (DF). Teaching students to be independent learners, particularly those planning to transfer to a four-year institution, is challenging. It can be difficult to identify all of the “college knowledge” that community college students lack. Many schools like ours offer an “Introduction to College” course to address these issues. I have learned that it is helpful to reiterate what a syllabus is, what an office hour is, and how they can benefit students. I also expose students a second time to all of the college resources, such as the library (DF). Open access provides opportunities for students to attend college for a variety of reasons, but it also means that faculty have to be more than discipline experts in order to help students succeed.

Alternate Formats

Most community colleges give courses in multiple formats. A quick online survey found formats including the traditional two or three days a week (including some that meet at 11 p.m. or midnight to meet the needs of students working the night shift), once a week three-hour classes (including on Saturday and Sundays), weekend courses that meet Friday night and all day Saturday for three or four consecutive or alternating weekends, accelerated six-to-eight–week courses, one-week intensive courses during January or summer, online regular term, online accelerated, and hybrid courses, Locations of classes vary, from on-campus, to extension centers, to off-campus sites such as local high schools or workplaces. The use of so many formats means that instructors must constantly rework their courses in order to fit these formats. What works in a twice-a-week course is not necessarily successful in a weekender that meets three times over two months (SK).

Courses in some alternate formats can mean more academic difficulties for students. For example, some students are not prepared for the extra work that an eight-week accelerated course requires. I once taught an accelerated online section of Introductory Psychology. Such acceleration meant that students needed to spent at least 20–22 hours per week on my course for successful learning. Several students withdrew within the first two weeks, but others simply stopped working. Surprisingly, several students did earn As or Bs. When I asked what contributed to their success, they indicated that they had planned ahead for the time and work required (DF).

The options for teaching in these varied formats give faculty flexibility, provide life–work balance, and can work well for a parent or someone taking care of elderly parents, since it is possible to craft a full load without teaching on campus Monday through Friday from eight to five. When my children were young, I found that teaching weekenders and evening classes helped cut down on childcare expenses since my spouse was available to care for the children when I was in class. A schedule like this one also allowed me to participate in many of my children’s school activities such as field trips that an eight-to-five weekly schedule would have precluded (SK).

Make a Difference

Faculty must expect to teach to a wide academic range of students in a single classroom (Morest, 2013). For example, in the Introduction to Psychology course, we may have a student who completed a psychology course in high school, a recent high school graduate whose SAT scores were not high enough to gain admission to a state university, a high school valedictorian on scholarship, a retired engineer, and a student who has completed only developmental reading. How can course content be taught to make it accessible to all these students? That is the challenge. It can be difficult to design assignments that will engage such a broad range of students and also allow each to succeed. In my introductory course, all students must read and comprehend a college-level text and complete a five-page analytical essay. I use a scaffolding technique in which class activities prepare students for the writing assignment, which requires students to explain how they will use psychological concepts in their career or life. I require a short essay during the first week (ungraded) so that I can identify students who need extra writing help. I actively refer those students to our college resources, including the Writing Center. While not all students will take advantage of my recommendation, it is gratifying when students come to see me during office hours to go over their drafts, having taken advantage of college services (SK & DF).

Even with the challenges of students’ varying backgrounds, teaching at a community college can be immensely rewarding because of one’s ability to help make a genuine difference in the lives of students. Some of our students never thought they would have the chance to pursue higher education, or they came from countries where only the privileged could enter a university. I have received thank-you notes from students who were grateful for the chance to learn (DF). Watching students get excited about learning and encouraging them to continue their education makes teaching worthwhile.

It is also exciting to introduce students to my discipline and encourage them to pursue the study of psychology. Several years ago, I had a student who earned a 105 on the first exam (out of 100, due to extra credit). Her grasp of the issues was astonishing for a first-semester student. I began encouraging her to take other psychology classes and to major in the discipline. Two years after she graduated from the community college and a subsequent four-year institution, she returned to ask me to write her a recommendation for a graduate program in psychology. After majoring in education, she had decided that psychology was what she really wanted to study. She recently completed her doctorate (DF).

While my student’s experience was not a common one, ask any community college teacher about the transformative power of their institution, and they will have stories to tell that are amazing and sometimes humbling (Finley, 2002). We have seen a former convict transformed into a nationally recognized and respected author, an itinerant worker receive multiple undergraduate and graduate scholarships to pursue a doctorate, and a young man forced into servitude as a child soldier during his country’s civil war build a new and promising life for himself (SK). The power of higher education is widely known, but at the community college, that power is raw. Lives can be reshaped by the magic of another chance, like the alumna who failed out of her four-year school, started over at her community college, went on for an advanced degree, and now holds a prestigious government position. As a teacher at a community college, I find that such experiences, while not common, do occur with enough frequency to encourage me. As community college faculty, we can make a difference (SK).

Heavy Teaching Load

At most community colleges, the teaching load is five three-credit courses per term, or 15 credits per term (Modern Language Association [MLA], n.d.) At times, faculty may overload their teaching schedule to meet the needs of the department. On occasion, faculty can end up with four or five different course preparations. This situation is especially true in community colleges with smaller faculties, since a wide range of courses must be offered. Although teaching is the primary job responsibility for community college faculty, they must still advise students, serve on departmental and institutional committees, participate in division duties, undertake professional development, and sometimes engage in community service (Levin, 2013). So, while the imperative to publish in high-rejection journals is not usually a part of the job description at the community college, the course load can mean more than 40 hours per week teaching, holding office hours, advising students, and performing a variety of other responsibilities.

While faculty can end up with multiple preparations, at some community colleges it is possible to teach five sections of an introductory course. Having only one preparation may sound beneficial, but teaching five sections of an introductory course can become taxing. It can be exciting to introduce students to the science of psychology, for example, but it can also involve a great deal of extra work, since the introductory courses tend to have larger enrollments. It can be challenging to keep the course interesting while teaching it multiple times over multiple terms. I would sometimes forget what I had covered in which section when teaching five sections of introductory psychology (DF). While such introductory courses tend to have larger enrollments, there are no graduate teaching assistants (TAs) to help with grading like there are at four-year schools. Community college faculty must be prepared to handle all aspects of their courses.

Female Faculty

Two-year colleges employ more female faculty than do four-year colleges, and they have the highest percentage of tenured female faculty (Everett, 2011). This may be because fewer women earn the doctorate required for teaching at four-year colleges, or it may be because community colleges tend to be more female-friendly. Community colleges offer the chance for more of a balance between life and work. While the teaching loads are heavy, as noted previously, schedules tend to be more flexible and allow female faculty to more easily raise a family. In fact, we even know several female faculty who worked as adjuncts when their children were preschool age, then sought full-time positions when their children started school, having seen the flexibility community college teaching schedules can offer. As described above, I followed this trajectory and was always grateful for the life–work balance it afforded me (SK).

An additional benefit for female faculty at community colleges is that there are more opportunities to develop leadership skills, especially in terms of committee work and governance. At our school, several of our outstanding female faculty have gone on to excel in administrative positions. Some studies report that community colleges are the only higher education institutions where there are more female administrators than male administrators (Everett, 2011).

Heavy Employment of Adjuncts

The percentage of part-time faculty teaching at community colleges varies across reports, but it is at least 58% according to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE, 2014, p. 2). Other reports have placed this percentage even higher, with estimates varying based on the particular discipline as well as the location of the community college. For the community college, using adjunct (or part-time or contingent) faculty helps control costs since these faculty are paid less, and receive few or no benefits. Adjuncts are also hired on an “as needed” basis, so they have no guarantee of continued employment. For the community college, this policy means that staffing is determined by enrollment. For departments, it means that many or most of their students are being taught by faculty who may rarely be on campus and who may be less involved in college events.

Contingent faculty can feel marginalized because, at some schools, they may not have an office or even access to voicemail. While many community colleges have a cadre of devoted adjunct faculty, these faculty may teach at multiple institutions in order to make a living. Contingent/adjunct pay is notoriously low, and few institutions offer benefits for adjuncts (Levin, 2013). Since contingent faculty may not know until right before a term begins if they have a course to teach, some may have little loyalty to a particular institution. At professional meetings, stories circulate of adjuncts who quit the first day because they were offered another contingent position paying more. On the other hand, there are many adjuncts who teach at particular institutions for decades and who are actively involved in the life of the institution and the lives of the students.

Many adjuncts are professionals working in applied fields. They bring a wealth of “real-world” experience that is beneficial for community college students. However, some may come with a limited background in pedagogy since their career plans while in graduate school focused on practice. Finding a common time for pedagogy workshops or presentations for contingent faculty can be difficult, given their varying schedules (Smith, 2007). We are exploring the use of asynchronous online professional development workshops in order to overcome the time constraints (DF).

Lack of Respect in Academic Community

A lack of respect from academic colleagues at four-year institutions is a common experience for many community college faculty. Some four-year faculty question whether community college teaching is actually a profession in the same vein as teaching at the four-year school, or they question whether community college faculty are really college faculty or rather just glorified high school teachers (Kinsel, n.d.). I have experienced this lack of respect multiple times. For example, I recently attended a national webinar on assessment in psychology in which a participant from a four-year institution implied that community colleges were not following our national guidelines, were not really teaching at the college level, and were not interested in assessment (DF).

The difference in the educational degree requirements for community college faculty and for faculty at four-year institutions probably contributes greatly to the perceived lack of respect in the academic community. About 20% of community college faculty have a doctorate or professional degree, while 80% of faculty at four-year institutions have earned the doctorate. Many community college faculty do go on to earn the doctorate while employed full-time (Rifkin, n.d.). As some community colleges move toward offering baccalaureate degrees, the issue of the community college instructor as a professional will escalate, and it is likely that a doctorate will become more common if the baccalaureate is offered (Chen, 2015).

There are additional areas of differences between community college and four-year faculty that may undercut the reputation of two-year faculty in the academic community. Community college faculty may have less autonomy over their own work than do colleagues at four-year institutions in terms of curriculum decisions. Unlike most four-year institutions, many community colleges do not offer tenure, and the promise of a career may therefore be less certain (Jenkins, 2011). While many community colleges expect some professional development, most do not require involvement with disciplinary associations, publications, and presentations. The definition of professional development may be different than the definition at four-year institutions, but most community colleges do expect full-time faculty to stay engaged with their disciplines. Even faced with funding limits, community college faculty do participate in professional development, especially that related to teaching (Rifkin, n.d.).

Job Security

For full-time faculty at a community college, there is generally a sense of security in employment, even when an institution does not offer tenure. For schools without tenure, multiple-year contracts (after the first year or two) are fairly common (Levin, 2013). For schools that offer tenure, the criteria for becoming tenured are less stringent in terms of publication than at a four-year college or university. It is generally not necessary to publish in peer-reviewed journals or to present at national conferences, although community college faculty do publish in such journals, and present at national conferences on a regular basis. The “publish or perish” mindset of the research university and of smaller colleges, however, does not exist. What is paramount at the community college is excellence in teaching. Service to the students, college, and community are also highly valued (Rifkin, n.d.).

Some community colleges offer opportunities for faculty to broaden their skill sets by replacing some of their teaching responsibilities with other duties. Typically, a faculty member might teach one less class and spend these equivalent released or reassigned hours in other pursuits. Opportunities can include writing grant proposals; serving as the principal investigator (PI) or project manager of grant-funded activities; directing a variety of college initiatives, such as a faculty-mentoring program; or serving as a liaison to important college endeavors such as functioning as an assessment coach for a college-wide course evaluation program.

With the assignment of alternate responsibilities, I have had the opportunity to work in depth with faculty professional development, including coordinating a program specifically designed for newly hired faculty. I have also gained experience in writing, managing, and evaluating grants, as well as tutoring students one-on-one in our Writing Center. These endeavors have helped me network with faculty throughout the college and have given me new perspectives that have enriched my work in the classroom (SK).

Participation in such diverse experiences allows faculty to increase their value to their institution and may enhance their job security. While job security is generally lasting at community colleges, it must be noted that salaries may be lower than at a four-year school. However, public community college institutions usually offer good packages of fringe benefits (Kapitulik, 2013).

Lack of Resources

The problems with adequate funding for community colleges are well documented (Bohn, Reyes, & Johnson, 2013). These issues translate into more challenges for community college faculty, who often lack the resources that faculty at four-year institutions take for granted. Faculty offices are sometimes shared, and some faculty may have no permanent office space. Sometimes there is no, or limited, departmental secretarial support, so faculty must complete all administrative tasks themselves.

The latest technology is not always available at community colleges (Cohen et al., 2014). Departments may not have the money to order current journals or other such professional materials. Travel money is often minimal or nonexistent at many community colleges. Traveling to present at a national conference can mean paying for a substantial portion of the expenses out of one’s own pocket. It is not unusual for community college faculty to receive only a few hundred dollars for the fiscal year for professional development, an amount that will not even pay for registration at national conferences (Smith, 2007).

Academic Structure and Governance

Academic and governance structures can vary widely at community colleges (Cohen et al., 2014). For community colleges that began as subsidiaries of high schools, the organizational structures often mirror those of secondary systems, including rules about work, administrative structure, and oversight of curriculum. Today, at most community colleges, the academic structure mirrors that at a four-year institution. There is a department chair, a dean, and an academic vice-president. Based on a survey of job descriptions online, it is clear there is a wide range of responsibilities and authority, and some positions are quite different from those at four-year institutions. At some four-year schools, academic VPs have oversight but are not directly involved in day-to-day elements such as teaching schedules. At some community colleges, the VPs determine things such as workload and office hours (Cohen et al., 2014).

At four-year institutions, department chairs are generally chosen by job searches similar to those for faculty and administrative positions. Chairs have oversight of and authority over departments, including faculty schedules, workloads, and other academic issues. At some community colleges, deans or other administrators choose the chairs. At some, the chair position rotates among faculty members and involves more administrative tasks than decision-making authority. At some, the chair cannot make independent decisions; all decisions must be approved by higher-level administrators. The chair of a department at a four-year institution may teach by choice; at such institutions, the chair is an administrative position and is compensated as such. At some community colleges, the chair position is an add-on to teaching responsibilities (Cohen et al., 2014). At our institution, the chair receives reassigned time for their administrative duties but completes the required workload by teaching as well. The chair is responsible for overseeing all of the assessment plans, setting the schedule, staffing and overseeing all faculty, and ordering all materials for the bookstore, as well as other duties as assigned (DF & SK).

In higher education overall, the number of administrators has doubled, while the percentage of full-time faculty has shrunk (Marcus, 2014). Often at the community college, new administrators may be hired each time a new initiative is introduced. Expanded federal and state regulations also mean that colleges need administrators to oversee compliance. Such administrators often make salaries higher than full-time faculty’s, contributing to the rise in tuition and other fees (Marcus, 2014).

“Governance” refers to the processes and structures by which decisions are made. While there are common elements in all higher education institutions such as boards of trustees, presidents, and vice-presidents, governance at community colleges differs from that at four-year institutions. Some have faculty organizations or senates that operate in a manner similar to those at four-year schools, but at some community colleges, such organizations are essentially advisory boards without the authority to make decisions. They may recommend a course of action, but at some schools, even decisions about curriculum and assessment are made by administrators (Kisker & Kater, 2013; Schuetz, 1999).

A growing number of community college faculties have turned to unionization in response to some of these governance issues. In particular, there is a growing movement among part-time (adjunct, contingent) faculty to unionize (Levin, 2013). While academia has traditionally rejected collective bargaining, some community college faculty see unions as a way to maintain academic freedom, job security, and economic security (Berry & Worthen, 2014).

Evaluation of community college faculty is another area of difference between community colleges and four-year schools. At four-year institutions, students’ evaluations of teachers are the most important element in the assessment of teaching, although there has been an increase of observation at liberal arts colleges (Miller & Seldin, 2014). New four-year faculty may meet with chairs and discuss their scholarship, publications, and committee work. An internet survey of evaluation practices at community colleges showed that, at many two-year schools, student evaluations are considered, but faculty are also observed by chairs or deans (and sometimes both). At some schools, faculty must submit detailed yearly descriptions of their participation in departmental and college committees. Differences in evaluation procedures come from the community colleges’ early relationship with the secondary school system, whose evaluations involve more direct observation (Cohen et al., 2014).

The Community College—The Future

The community college holds a unique place in the American higher education system. It serves as a bridge between the secondary school system and the university system. It gives everyone the chance to participate in higher education and, ultimately, to earn a college degree that has the potential to increase earning power and change lives. There is a renewed interest in making a community college education accessible to all by making tuition-free. Whether that comes to pass, the community colleges will still need dedicated faculty who understand and support the multiple missions of the community college and who are committed to accepting the challenges that teaching at a community college poses in order to receive the rewards of making a difference in the lives of community college students.

Future Questions

  1. 1. What will be the ongoing role of the community college in higher education in the twenty-first century?

  2. 2. How can we prepare faculty to teach at the community college as the institution evolves?

  3. 3. How can community colleges fulfill all their missions with limited resources?

  4. 4. How can community colleges deal with the issue of developmental education without discouraging students?

  5. 5. How can we make the United States system of education, from pre-kindergarten through graduate school, more seamless to benefit students and the country?


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