Although American community colleges (formerly known as junior colleges) have existed since the late nineteenth century, little sociological attention has been paid to these institutions until recently. The conceptual frameworks that do exist highlight the juxtaposition of the community college’s function of expanding access to higher education while also limiting opportunity for many students.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, as secondary school enrollments increased rapidly and the demand for college access grew, university leaders and local school district officials advocated four different models of junior colleges: the junior college, that is, the lower division of a college of liberal arts or a university; normal schools accredited for two years of college work; public high schools extended to include the lower division of college work; and small private colleges limited to two year college work (Levinson 2005: 51). Presidents of many leading universities tried to emulate the German elite university model that focused on highly specialized professional training and research and to reduce the number of their freshmen and sophomores. They saw the two-year junior college idea both as an upward extension of the high school and as a primary means of responding to the demand from working class parents and local communities for access to elite higher education. They believed the creation of the junior college system could function as a buffer zone to protect the university by diverting those clamoring for access, leaving the university free to pursue its tasks of research and advanced professional training (Brint & Karabel 1989).
Previously enrolling only about 10 percent of all undergraduates, the community college experienced unprecedented growth in the three decades following World War II. Between 1944 and 1947 community college enrollment doubled as more than 250,000 new students registered for classes. Community colleges grew exponentially in the 1960s and 1970s (Dougherty 1994). Since the 1980s the number of community colleges has stabilized at over 1,100, or over one fourth of all higher education institutions in the US. This level of enrollment accounts for 45 percent of first time college students and 37 percent of all undergraduates in US colleges and universities.
As a great invention of US higher education in the twentieth century, the community college has made college accessible to those people who may otherwise not be able to attend any college, especially to the working class and minority populations who were traditionally underrepresented in four year colleges. Because of its open door admissions policy, low tuition cost, diversity of course offerings, and flexible course schedule, community college is actually accessible to every applicant who may even not finish high school and is touted by its proponents as ”democracy’s college” or ”people’s college.”
Despite the fact that the low tuition and very low or open admissions policies of community colleges make these institutions a major entry way into college for poor students, racial minorities, lower achieving, part time, commuting,
and adult students, surprisingly few sociologists have focused on these institutions and their students. However, several key researchers have illuminated our understanding of the stratifying role that community colleges have played in the expansion of higher education and college access. Lower class and minority students are still disadvantaged in community colleges in terms of persistence rates and transfer rates. In particular, community colleges are criticized for systematically ”cooling out” many of their students’ bachelor degree aspirations by channeling them into terminal vocational programs (Clark 1960). The term cooling out is used to describe the process by which community colleges urge students to recognize their academic deficiencies and lower their aspirations (Clark 1960; Karabel 1977). Students are persuaded to lower their original plans for a BA degree and to aim for a one or two-year degree in a vocational or applied program. Colleges accomplish this cooling out by a combination of pre entrance testing, counseling, orientation classes, notices of unsatisfactory work, further counseling referrals, and probation.
Inspired by Clark’s classic idea that community colleges perform the function of cooling out students’ bachelor’s degree aspirations, Brint and Karabel (1989) challenged the view of community colleges as institutions that democratized higher education by allowing access to those formerly excluded from postsecondary education. The original mission behind the creation of the first community colleges was to offer high school graduates the first two-year college work and then transfer them to four year colleges for upper division of college work. Most community colleges in the early years were thus transfer oriented liberal arts institutions from where students could transfer credits to a four-year college to complete their baccalaureate degree. Although community college advocates in the early years also emphasized vocational education as an essential part of the two-year college curriculum and some early community colleges did offer vocational programs, such semiprofessional training programs were resisted by most students as ”dead end” ones and seldom attracted over one third of the total enrollments in any institution.
Brint and Karabel (1989) posit an institutionally based argument in which early community college leaders pushed for the vocationalization of the curriculum in an effort to ensure the legitimacy and survival of an institution that was structurally located at the bottom of the higher education hierarchy and therefore could not compete with the higher status four year colleges and universities. As a result, community colleges diverted would be four-year college students toward two year degrees intended to prepare them for technical and semiprofessional occupations rather than transfer to a four-year college.
Dougherty (1994) expands this institutional framework by analyzing the interests and actions of state and government officials in occupationalizing community colleges at the expense of students pursuing transfer goals, who, given their often weak academic preparation, suffer from obstacles that persist due to the institution’s inability to perform its contradictory and often competing functions successfully.
Sociologists tend to discuss these dynamics in the context of research that reveals that two year colleges are associated with a lower educational attainment. A study by Lee and Frank (1990) showed that, four years after graduating from high school, only a quarter of those who enrolled in a community college had transferred to a four-year college, suggesting that attending a community college decreases a student’s chances of completing a four-year degree. Dougherty (1994) reports findings from several studies that reveal a sizable gap of 11-19 percent in baccalaureate attainment between community college entrants and comparable four-year college students. Only a handful of sociologists have attempted to identify the institutional mechanisms that lie at the root of this discrepancy. Dougherty suggests that community colleges present an institutional hindrance to those with bachelor’s degree aspirations for several reasons, including fewer opportunities for social integration, difficulties obtaining financial aid, and loss of credits for those who do manage to transfer to four year institutions. He draws upon the research of Weis (1985) and others to suggest that the peer cultures in community colleges discourage academic work, and community college faculty’s low expectations and tendency to concentrate on a few promising students while largely giving up on the rest may be partially responsible as well.
The extent to which the institutional disadvantages of community college attendance result from pre or post transfer processes has barely been studied at all by sociologists. Some suggest that the minority of community college students who do manage to transfer are no less likely to complete a baccalaureate degree than are “native” students who began at a four-year college. This finding, coupled with the reality of very low community college transfer rates, suggests that the disadvantage does stem from the community college experience. On the other hand, Rosenbaum (2001) explains that part of the reason why some students are not finishing college is that high school counselors view community colleges as providing a second chance for all students, regardless of past effort and achievement. They therefore operate according to a ”college for all” norm that encourages nearly all students to attend college despite their level of effort, achievement, and preparation. However, this leads to unrealistic educational plans for students who are unprepared for college. In partial contradiction to the community college studies noted above, Deil Amen and Rosenbaum (2002) find this college for all philosophy continuing into the community college setting, where remedial students are encouraged toward their bachelor’s degree goals, yet remain uninformed of the gravity of their lack of academic preparation and unaware of their low likelihood of completion. Rather than a diversion toward a lower alternative – a two-year degree in a more vocationally oriented major – most of these students leave college with no degree at all.
Deil Amen and Rosenbaum (2003) also analyze the differences between community colleges and for profit and nonprofit occupationally oriented colleges and suggest that the minimized bureaucratic hurdles, focused organizational priorities, structured programs, proactive and extensive financial aid counseling, academic advising, and job placement assistance at the occupational colleges can serve as a useful model to enhance retention among similar low income students at community colleges.
Other recent studies employ a policy oriented perspective and note community colleges’ increased focus on workforce preparation, particularly in the form of short term certificate and contract training programs (Dougherty & Bakia 2000). Shaw and Rab (2003) question this shift and the additional pressures for accountability that face today’s community colleges. Their insightful comparative case study reveals the barriers to college access among low income populations that are created when federal policies encourage community colleges to respond to the needs of the business community as their primary ”customer.” Others analyze the ways in which ideologies and welfare reform policies have decreased college access and enrollment among recipients of public aid.
Although there is domestic controversy over the future of the US community college, most countries in Europe and Asia have supported the creation of two year colleges similar to American community colleges. In addition to transfer and vocational education, continuing and developmental education, and community education are also critical components of the comprehensive community college curriculum in the US. A new measure taken by community colleges in the 1970s was that ”contract” or ”customized” training programs tailored to the needs of particular employers were added to community college vocational offerings. Additionally, since the late 1980s, the clear separation between academic and vocational programs has disappeared, and vocational students are now as likely as academic students to transfer to four year colleges.
- Adelman, C. (1992) The Way We Are: The Community College as American Thermometer. US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
- Brint, S. & Karabel, J. (1989) The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America, 1900-1985. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Clark, B. R. (1960) The ”Cooling Out” Function in Higher Education. American Journal of Sociology 60(6): 569-76.
- Cohen, A. M. & Brawer, F. B. (2003) The American Community College, 4th edn. Jossey-Bass, SanFrancisco.
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- Dougherty, K. J. & Bakia, M. (2000) Community Colleges and Contract Training: Content, Origins, and Impact. Teachers College Record 102 (February): 197-243.
- Grubb, N. W. (1996) Working in the Middle: Strengthening Education and Training for the Mid Skilled Labor Force. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
- Karabel, J. (1977) Community Colleges and Social Stratification: Submerged Class Conflict in American Higher Education. In: Karabel, J. & Halsey, A. H. (Ed.), Power and Ideology in Education. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 232-54.
- Lee, V. & Frank, K. A. (1990) Students’ Characteristics that Facilitate Transfer from Two-Year to Four-Year Colleges. Sociology of Education 63(3): 178-93.
- Leigh, D. E. & Gill, A. M. (2004) The Effect of Community Colleges on Changing Students’ Educational Aspirations. Economics of Education Review 23: 95-102.
- Levinson, D. L. (2005) Community Colleges: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.
- Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001) Beyond College For All: Career Paths of the Forgotten Half. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
- Shaw, K. M. & Rab, S. (2003) Market Rhetoric versus Reality in Policy and Practice: The Workforce Investment Act and Access to Community College Education and Training. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 586: 172-93.
- Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Weis, L. (1985) Between Two Worlds: Black Students in an Urban Community College. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston.