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 that we do anything but continue the life-changing, economy-essential work of community and technical colleges. Indeed, the global movement toward this democratic, open-access education model is on the advance—and we are all working 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 junior colleges, another term that most institutions in our movement no longer use for a host of reasons. The two-year term is based on the typical length of time it took to complete degrees in a full-time, often-residential, model of education. It stayed with us as the post-Truman-commission, more-comprehensive community colleges emerged through the 60s and 70s. And now, as our more complex and multimission—basic skills, adult education, transfer, technical, and vocational education—institutions have risen in profile, the two-year term has for many states, federal agencies, associations, foundations, and community groups become a safe umbrella moniker. In report after report, accreditation profiles, association white papers, and even our own marketing literature, the two-year college term has become a staple of our vocabulary. However, there is a compelling set of conversations emerging about why we need to say goodbye to this term. While comfortable and traditional, and while the accreditation agencies seem to have no clearer way of referring to us, the term is hurting 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 community college—learning swirl was again a key focus. Learning swirl is based on the idea that students are not coming to us in a neat, linear pipeline progression. They are swirling into and out of our educational programs and services at all different ages and stages. Indeed, even though we are seeing an increase in right-from-highschool students, our students by and large follow diverse pathways through our programs. More often than not, they come to us underprepared for college-level work, with varying life responsibilities, sometimes taking care of kids and/or parents, and often working well over 40 hours per week. This is why we in the community college movement—especially those of us who attended a community

college—fully understand the finding that the vast majority of our students take three to four years to finish their two-year associate degrees. With the notable exception of cohort-based, exclusive allied health programs such as nursing, most reports on community college degree completion rates put the number of students that 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 marketing material, college catalogs, and government agencies that they are attending a two-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 jumping ever-rising financial hurdles just to walk through our open doors. Students who take longer than two years get the double whammy of feeling like they are behind everyone else, when their pattern of enrollment is actually the majority. Coming out of this town meeting, the consensus sentiment was that we need to rethink 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-year formats. Can we show them one-year accelerated, two-year, three-year, and even four-year models? This might help them make better choices on course loads when 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 makes more sense, a pathway that is actually more common. Moreover, if they are not in a degree program, but in industry certification or vocational training programs, not using the term two-year college might help them feel more like an equal-value participant in the life of the institution. A final caveat we need to consider is that this realization of the diverse pathways for our students does not give anyone license to forget our obligation to enable those who can to successfully complete in two years. Indeed, I am a strong supporter of one-year accelerated formats as well. Neither bureaucratic hurdles nor course calendars based on our convenience should ever be the culprit in slowing students down when they have the ability to finish their degree programs more 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 program pathways and proactively plan for the diversity of preparation levels, desired credentials, 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 institutions. Hurting Our Institutions On the institutional level, the two-year term biases our learning and service operations. As already mentioned, most institutions structure associate degree programs in our catalogs in neat two-year formats, often by requirement of accrediting agencies, when the vast majority of students will never progress this way. If we rethink this model and explore advocating different pathways, we can wrestle with some key questions: (1) If they really take longer to complete, are there curriculum half-life issues we need to address? For example, in some technical programs, three- to four-year-old course work can be out of date by the time a student takes a related industry certification. Do we need to conceptualize

midprogram capstone experiences? (2) Can we structure our curricula with more laddered credentials to give students more completion points along the way to help boost their momentum and give them credentials for job skills if they need to stop out? (3) What other kinds of support will they need if they are likely to be with us longer? What kind of in-program interventions will work best to keep them on this longer course? (4) And, finally, can we be more accommodating if they need to stop out and re-enter later? That’s right. Community college colleagues are actually talking about accommodating students who need to stop out for a time. There are some educators 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 student service 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 can and should hold on to. It is a realization that part of the reason students take longer than two years is because life happens. Kids get sick, parents fall ill, money runs out, jobs go away, and inconvenient unforeseen tragedies rear their ugly heads. How can we help them if they need to stop out? More important, how can we help them come back without making them jump so many bureaucratic hurdles that they give up? Some interesting ideas institutions are exploring include never turning off a student’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 bridge educational programs is another way to keep them connected to the college. Regardless of the strategy, the goal is the same, to better configure our programs and services based on how students really go through our systems. Another key point of conversation regarding how the two-year term biases institutional learning models and services centers on the diverse credentials we offer. The term creates a focus on associate degrees at a time when our adult literacy programs, basic skills training, industry certifications, career and technical education programs, and other workforce education engagements are expanding. Indeed, in many industry circles and economic development arenas, it is these credentials and programs that are seen as essential. But by consistently reinforcing the fact that we are two-year colleges, we not-so-subtly devalue the faculty, staff, and students involved in programs that have little to nothing to do with two-year degrees. If we are truly a comprehensive community college, why claim 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 the two-year term brings to our supporter relations may be the most pressing. Accountability initiatives, outcomes-based education, and No Child Left Behind are all about us making and keeping promises to those who support us locally, at the state level, and through federal programs. Are we really keeping a two-year college promise? Of course we are working hard to keep the comprehensive community college promise. But that’s not what our legislators and policy makers hear. They have it drilled into their heads that we are two-year colleges. Then they see our time-to-degree statistics, and our credibility takes a perceptual hit. We

end up doing extensive information sessions—wasting valuable advocacy energy— just to help our supporters understand why it takes a student three or four years to complete a two-year degree. Why are we doing this to ourselves? It seems particularly self-defeating at a time when we are exploring applied baccalaureate programs and expanding our role in industry partnerships, certifications, and on-demand training. Does calling ourselves two-year colleges help us advocate for the expansion of early-college high schools? Dual enrollment? Again, we end up spending time explaining to our legislators and community leaders why a two-year college is even involved in these activities. And what about explaining our broad-based role to foundations and private donors in the fundraising world? It’s a problem there as well. If we are ever going to help our supporters really understand our personal, community, and workforce development roles in our communities—which is why we are investing in expensive economic impact studies with the likes of CC Benefits—we need to fiercely protect the brand. Unfortunately, this seemingly benign and more ecumenical term hurts our brand—big time! Saying Goodbye Saying goodbye is difficult. The two-year term has been a dear old friend to our movement. But it may be time for the movement to move on. When the best arguments we can muster for keeping it are convenience, convention, or helping incent the few students who can hustle through their degrees more briskly, we need to have serious conversations about finally ending its inclusion in our leadership vocabulary, state and federal reports, college catalogs, marketing materials, and all. It just may be time to say goodbye to the “two-year college.”

Mark David Milliron is president and CEO of Catalyze Learning International (CLI). He can be reached at

Cynthia Wilson, Editor
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