Partnerships between Universities and Community Colleges

Universities serve the same purpose as community colleges, differences are matters of degree.  (Pun intended.)

“People look at me like I’m crazy when I say that our greatest partnership here at Ohio State should be with the community colleges.”

Gordon Gee


The number of students seeking baccalaureate degrees at community colleges is rapidly increasing. Twenty-one states currently allow Community Colleges to offer Bachelors degrees. The Community College Baccalaureate Association — its mission evidenced by its title — suggests that the reason is money. St Petersburg College, a two-year institution, offers 25 four-year degrees, at half the cost of the University of South Florida.  Money drives students to seek bachelor’s degrees from community colleges.

Additionally, too few universities are willing to offer classes that fit the needs of non-traditional students with respect to work and family lives that clutter the calendar for time and attention.  The better, more responsive, community colleges do so with pleasure and with a positive response from those who choose to continue studying. The one-two punch of time and money has a powerful impact on anyone considering the value of an educational experience.

Electron microscopes, when studying physics or chemistry; research laboratories for spectrum of sciences; materials testing and electronic or information technology support in engineering, all consume resources.  In spite of the Internet, libraries with millions of volumes of books and serials subscriptions have value for all, but are indispensable for would-be historians or students of literature. The research university costs more and offers a different variety of educational opportunities than a community college.

This is not an issue unless the community college bills the product as equal to what’s available at a university. The impact of a world-class physicist on a poet in the same institution is difficult to articulate but remarkable for the effect that interactions have, consciously or unconsciously, on the student experience. Because the potency of the mix is difficult to specify it’s often lost on even astute university observers.

The challenge:  Universities and community colleges, especially those in close proximity, often see each other as competition. The community colleges first missions are college preparation and workforce training, noble causes both.

Particularly egregious cases of mission mish-mash can occur when taxpayer supported (at both the local and state level) community colleges go to for-profit institutions for specialized degree completion schemes.  Institutions must serve students, but, they must also respond to state and local taxpayers’ investments.  A recent Aegis editorial touches the delicate balance required.  Bachelor’s degrees at community colleges should always be first offered through public in-state institutions as they both drink from the same trough.  For-profits should be carefully screened, they feed elsewhere and differently.  University leadership should welcome the opportunity for response to student and market, not trickily provide lip service to increase capitation and cash flow regardless of quality or effectiveness.

Community colleges can succumb to “university envy” while the senior institutions indulge in arrogance and indifference to needs of student and state. Offering place-bound students access to baccalaureate degrees at a community college campus through a tax-fueled public university makes sense when distance and accessibility are factors.  Such offerings can be delivered at lower rates. The community college will not, and should not, have the same infrastructural support necessary at a research university.   The cost for the second two years of a reputable bachelor’s degree at a community college adds up to less in some areas of study.

Publicly supported universities of every stripe, have a responsibility to effectively interact with two-year schools. The most obvious way is through 2+ 2 transfer arrangements available to graduates of community colleges so that they complete baccalaureate degree education at universities. Concurrent enrollment hybrids are on the way, such as the one currently under development at the University of Southern Mississippi and Gulf Coast Community College.  Additionally, under special circumstances the state institutions should be willing to go “off-campus” to community colleges to present baccalaureate offerings at a lower cost in certain areas that are demonstrably less expensive than others.

Community colleges and universities must recognize their respective places in the educational constellation and when baccalaureate offerings on the community college campus make sense, senior institutions need agility to effectively serve students.

The magic in every case concerning a university and a community college, and a specific course of study, is that differences must be understood and individually negotiated through an overarching concern for what real long-term value for the student. This may seem obvious but it’s not.  And the tailoring of offerings to meet local and state needs and the interests of students and families is laborious and time-consuming.

One size never fits all.  One size fits one size.  Such effort serves students deliberately making it valuable.


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