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Saying Goodbye _ Leadership Abstracts

Saying Goodbye _ Leadership Abstracts

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Published by Mark David Milliron

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Published by: Mark David Milliron on Sep 17, 2009
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 December 2007 Volume 20, Number 12
Saying Goodbye to the Two-Year College?
Mark David Milliron
Calm down. No one is talking about, advocating, or even playing with the idea thatwe do anything but continue the life-changing, economy-essential work of community and technical colleges. Indeed, the global movement toward thisdemocratic, open-access education model is on the advance
and we are allworking to increase its momentum. There is, however, a conversation starting
about ending one of our movement’s key descriptors, a descriptor that while
convenient, is of little to no value. Indeed, it is more often a significant problem.The term two-year college goes back over 100 years to the inception of juniorcolleges, another term that most institutions in our movement no longer use for ahost of reasons. The two-year term is based on the typical length of time it took tocomplete degrees in a full-time, often-residential, model of education. It stayedwith us as the post-Truman-commission, more-comprehensive community collegesemerged through the 60s and 70s. And now, as our more complex andmultimission
basic skills, adult education, transfer, technical, and vocationaleducation
institutions have risen in profile, the two-year term has for manystates, federal agencies, associations, foundations, and community groups becomea safe umbrella moniker. In report after report, accreditation profiles, associationwhite papers, and even our own marketing literature, the two-year college termhas become a staple of our vocabulary.However, there is a compelling set of conversations emerging about why we needto say goodbye to this term. While comfortable and traditional, and while theaccreditation agencies seem to have no clearer way of referring to us, the term ishurting us. Put simply, it hurts our students, institutions, and supporters.
Hurting Our Students
In the League for Innovation’s recent monograph
Learning and the Road Ahead 
another of the road-ahead surveys exploring key trends in the communitycollege
learning swirl was again a key focus. Learning swirl is based on the ideathat students are not coming to us in a neat, linear pipeline progression. They areswirling into and out of our educational programs and services at all different agesand stages. Indeed, even though we are seeing an increase in right-from-high-school students, our students by and large follow diverse pathways through ourprograms. More often than not, they come to us underprepared for college-levelwork, with varying life responsibilities, sometimes taking care of kids and/orparents, and often working well over 40 hours per week. This is why we in thecommunity college movement
especially those of us who attended a community
fully understand the finding that the vast majority of our students takethree to four years to finish their two-year associate degrees. With the notableexception of cohort-based, exclusive allied health programs such as nursing, mostreports on community college degree completion rates put the number of studentsthat actually complete their two-year degree in two years at fewer than 5 percent.I heard this question during a community college town meeting on this topic:
 “What do the majority of our students—
students who are told by marketingmaterial, college catalogs, and government agencies that they are attending atwo-year college
feel like when they take longer than two years to complete their
studies?” You can guess what the resounding answer was: Failures. It’s not bad
enough that many of them are overcoming difficult life situations and jumpingever-rising financial hurdles just to walk through our open doors. Students whotake longer than two years get the double whammy of feeling like they are behindeveryone else, when their pattern of enrollment is actually the majority.Coming out of this town meeting, the consensus sentiment was that we need torethink our use of this term with students. We need to explore even revamping
our catalog so they don’t
see degree programs mapped out only in two-yearformats. Can we show them one-year accelerated, two-year, three-year, and evenfour-year models? This might help them make better choices on course loadswhen they are extensively working or caring for kids or extended family. In many
ways, it tells them it’s “ok” to take
a pathway through our curricula that makesmore sense, a pathway that is actually more common. Moreover, if they are not ina degree program, but in industry certification or vocational training programs, notusing the term two-year college might help them feel more like an equal-valueparticipant in the life of the institution.A final caveat we need to consider is that this realization of the diverse pathwaysfor our students does not give anyone license to forget our obligation to enablethose who can to successfully complete in two years. Indeed, I am a strongsupporter of one-year accelerated formats as well. Neither bureaucratic hurdlesnor course calendars based on our convenience should ever be the culprit inslowing students down when they have the ability to finish their degree programsmore quickly. What the learning swirl realization does challenge us to do, however,is to take a long, hard look at how most of our students experience their programpathways and proactively plan for the diversity of preparation levels, desiredcredentials, work requirements, family responsibilities, and so much more.Continually calling ourselves a two-year college throughout this process, however,
is not helping our students, and it’s definitely not helping our inst
Hurting Our Institutions
On the institutional level, the two-year term biases our learning and serviceoperations. As already mentioned, most institutions structure associate degreeprograms in our catalogs in neat two-year formats, often by requirement of accrediting agencies, when the vast majority of students will never progress thisway. If we rethink this model and explore advocating different pathways, we canwrestle with some key questions: (1) If they really take longer to complete, arethere curriculum half-life issues we need to address? For example, in sometechnical programs, three- to four-year-old course work can be out of date by thetime a student takes a related industry certification. Do we need to conceptualize
midprogram capstone experiences? (2) Can we structure our curricula with moreladdered credentials to give students more completion points along the way tohelp boost their momentum and give them credentials for job skills if they need tostop out? (3) What other kinds of support will they need if they are likely to bewith us longer? What kind of in-program interventions will work best to keep themon this longer course? (4) And, finally, can we be more accommodating if theyneed to stop out and re-enter later?
That’s righ
t. Community college colleagues are actually talking aboutaccommodating students who need to stop out for a time. There are someeducators and advocates who are so caught up in worshiping at the altar of retention that they fail to accept a basic truth that almost all faculty and studentservice people know: there are times when students need to stop out to get their
lives in order before they can come back and learn effectively. It’s about
readiness. Of course we do not use this as an excuse to give up on those we canand should hold on to. It is a realization that part of the reason students takelonger than two years is because life happens. Kids get sick, parents fall ill, moneyruns out, jobs go away, and inconvenient unforeseen tragedies rear their uglyheads. How can we help them if they need to stop out? More important, how canwe help them come back without making them jump so many bureaucratic hurdlesthat they give up?Some interesting ideas institutions are exploring include never turning off as
tudent’s email account. This digital lifeline allows them to still feel a part of the
community of the college with almost no cost. Creating low or no cost bridgeeducational programs is another way to keep them connected to the college.Regardless of the strategy, the goal is the same, to better configure our programsand services based on how students really go through our systems.Another key point of conversation regarding how the two-year term biasesinstitutional learning models and services centers on the diverse credentials weoffer. The term creates a focus on associate degrees at a time when our adultliteracy programs, basic skills training, industry certifications, career and technicaleducation programs, and other workforce education engagements are expanding.Indeed, in many industry circles and economic development arenas, it is thesecredentials and programs that are seen as essential. But by consistentlyreinforcing the fact that we are two-year colleges, we not-so-subtly devalue thefaculty, staff, and students involved in programs that have little to nothing to dowith two-year degrees. If we are truly a comprehensive community college, whyclaim an umbrella term that neglects such broad segments of our mission?
Hurting Us With Our Supporters
Beyond the negative impact on our students and institutions, the challenges thetwo-year term brings to our supporter relations may be the most pressing.Accountability initiatives, outcomes-based education, and No Child Left Behind areall about us making and keeping promises to those who support us locally, at thestate level, and through federal programs. Are we really keeping a two-yearcollege promise? Of course we are working hard to keep the comprehensive
community college promise. But that’s not
what our legislators and policy makershear. They have it drilled into their heads that we are two-year colleges. Then theysee our time-to-degree statistics, and our credibility takes a perceptual hit. We

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