Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Bellevue Community College seeks to ensure that all students benefit from a liberal education.

Center Advances Liberal Education Outcomes for Community College Students


A recent report released by AAC&U asserts the importance of a liberal education for all students, regardless of the type of institution they attend or the field of study they pursue. College Learning for the New Global Century identifies the essential aims, learning outcomes, and guiding principles for a twenty-first-century education at any college or university—two-year or four-year, private or public. Bellevue Community College (BCC) in Washington State sought to ensure that all students on its campus would receive a contemporary liberal education when it dedicated resources to create the Center for Liberal Arts in 2002.  

Liberal Education at a Community College

Unlike many more traditional four-year colleges, BCC has a diverse mix of students—some seek academic credit in order to transfer to a four-year college, while others are working toward more specific professional goals. Some students have dependents at home, most have jobs in addition to school, and all commute to campus. The college is also known for its technology programs (it was named a Microsoft IT Showcase school in 2006), but its diversity—of students, faculty, programs, and needs served—is its dominant characteristic.

As a result of this diversity, creating a strong liberal education program that would serve all students was a challenge for BCC President Jean Floten in 2002. "All college students need both a broad education and more specific skills for success in the twenty-first century. BCC has a longstanding tradition of offering excellent technology programs, but we are also committed to offering our students a broad liberal education regardless of their choice of major," says BCC President Jean Floten. "I wanted a Center for Liberal Arts on campus so students would have access to the benefits that come with a liberal education—opportunities to broaden their perspectives, deepen their learning, and expand their base of skills and capacities."  

President Floten created a task force of faculty across disciplines who were interested in promoting liberal education on campus, and this group developed a set of core values and a mission statement to shape the center. "It is probably easier in some ways to directly address liberal arts education at four-year colleges and universities, so our interest was to provide our community college students with as enriched a program as possible," says Helen Taylor, interim director of the center. Because of BCC students' multiple commitments, the task force "wanted to build in experiences that advance liberal education outcomes both in the classroom and in cocurricular activities."

Today, the center serves more than 3,500 students by creating "multiple points of access" for students to achieve liberal education learning goals. By coordinating several programs, such as the "Hands on Democracy" lecture series, the "BCC Reads!" common book initiative, the International Scholar in Residence program, and interdisciplinary studies learning communities, the Center for Liberal Arts works to infuse attention to liberal education outcomes throughout the BCC experience to supplement general education requirements. Taylor believes that this broad approach "results in a strengthening or an enrichment of the structures that are already in place" for all students at Bellevue.

Having multiple liberal education events and programs creates varying and disparate data for the center to collect and analyze—in addition to the 3,500 students, the center also engages approximately 150 faculty and more than 500 community members every year. In order to assess an event or program's success, the center closely monitors attendance at events and offers participants evaluations at the conclusion of the events or programs. This type of assessment not only provides the center with feedback on how well it anticipated the community's interests, but it also indicates how informative the event was, or if students gained applicable, real-world capacities by attending the event or the program.

Interdisciplinary Studies Program

Recognizing that advancing liberal education outcomes at BCC had to occur in the context of competing demands on students' time and effort, BCC developed learning communities along with an interdisciplinary studies program (IDS). This program develops sets of three classes built around a single theme—a structure that allows for a student to take a full course load while also reaping the benefits of the program. There are also learning communities of only two classes in the program: one of the many efforts on the part of the center to enable students with tight academic schedules to participate.

IDS classes have titles such as "Skin Deep: Dealing with Difference" (including courses in such disciplines as ethnic studies, psychology, and sociology), "Bite Me: Consumption and U.S. Society" (biology, botany, and English), and "Rx.Com: Prescription for a Healthy Community" (English, American studies, and speech). These classes, as indicated by the course titles, do not shy from weighty topics; Rx.Com's course description leads with, "No magic pill or inoculation exists for social apathy, but this class will investigate cures, with your help," concluding with a rallying, "Be part of the solution." This approach to teaching is resonant with College Level Learning for the New Global Century's call for faculty to "Engage the Big Questions" in the classroom.

Textbooks are rarely used in IDS courses, with many of the readings consisting of primary sources—a new experience for many younger students. In the classroom, faculty members step back and allow students to discuss readings freely. Again, this is frequently a new experience for the students, and Taylor notes that such a student-centered approach aids in the development of thinking, writing, and communication skills. Students "learn to break down disciplinary boundaries and address a topic from multiple perspectives, [a skill] that is so valuable to their critical thinking," she says.

The students are not the only beneficiaries of the program. Because faculty members are working with colleagues outside their disciplines, the course planning itself is an opportunity for interdisciplinary learning and collaboration among faculty as well. This type of course development "breaks down the silo of 'being in my classroom and doing what I want,'" says Taylor, commenting that her own experiences of teaching with an economist and a biologist gave her the opportunity to learn from her colleagues while teaching her students.

Planning Ahead

The center currently is developing an initiative for globalizing the curriculum, believing that "developing global competencies" is essential to prepare students for success in a rapidly changing world, Taylor says. This initiative could incorporate global knowledge and perspectives in more classes, develop a global studies program or center, encourage students and faculty to study abroad, and increase the number and diversity of international students on campus.

This approach to building and broadening the center one program or event at a time is something Taylor thinks can be adopted by any school wishing to strengthen liberal education on campus. She points out that it would be fairly easy to start with one program or event on a campus, such as a common reading program that can draw on the expertise of several departments, and continue to grow from that success.

"What the Center for Liberal Arts has brought is an enriched intellectual life to the college. It has broadened our perspective and provided programming for students that helps them make connections so they are not just going from class to class and leaving without appreciating how their learning is relevant to their larger goals," Taylor says. "They are doing more with what they are learning."

Bellevue Community College