Liberal Education

The Indispensable Work of Community Colleges: The Conversations We Should Be Having

Colleges and universities have become practiced in articulating the value of diversity in relation to their institutional missions. Less often considered, at least in the context of many educators’ daily lives, is the corresponding value of diversity across the higher education landscape. Yet as Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has written, “One of American higher education’s greatest strengths is its diversity of institutional types—from community and state colleges and research universities, tribal colleges and historically black colleges and universities to faith-based and single-sex institutions, independent four-year colleges and online universities. . . . [T]hough the missions of these various institutions of higher education may be distinctive, they are united by the shared goals of educating students and advancing knowledge.”1

AAC&U’s membership comprises a range of institutions that share these essential goals. Those who interact with AAC&U regularly may be attracted to its meetings, projects, and publications for this very reason, eager to see what models of assessment and general education reform are emerging from institutions nothing like their own and excited to grapple with the complexity of translating other institutions’ innovations into workable strategies on their campuses. In fact, the association’s membership has no majority among Carnegie classifications: at last count, its 1,401 institutional members were 29 percent master’s-degree-granting institutions, 23 percent baccalaureate-degree-granting institutions, 17 percent doctorate-degree-granting institutions, 13 percent associate’s-degree-granting institutions, and 18 percent “other” (a category that includes specialized schools, state systems and agencies, international affiliates, and organizational affiliates).

A glance at these numbers makes clear that despite AAC&U’s broad inclusivity, one sector in particular—community colleges—is underrepresented among AAC&U members in relation to the nearly 40 percent of American students that these institutions enroll.2 Certainly, AAC&U’s membership numbers belie the influence that community colleges have within the association and their role in advancing the very cornerstone of its work—guaranteeing a high-quality liberal education for all students, at all institutions. At the same time, there is more to be done to ensure that community college faculty and administrators see themselves in AAC&U’s work. Indeed, AAC&U benefits deeply from the dedicated efforts of individuals at community colleges: the faculty member at the Community College of Rhode Island who does signature work with her students; the history professor at Germanna Community College who implemented a common assignment focused on civic engagement across multiple humanities courses; the community college leader from Upstate New York who promotes liberal education and related essential learning outcomes but avoids the language of liberal education with her board and workforce development advisory groups; the faculty member from Lee College in Texas who does signature work with prisoners under the auspices of an offender education program.

To surface the unique aspects of these and other community college experiences, we decided to offer a session at AAC&U’s 2018 annual meeting that would, at minimum, provide an opportunity to begin to unpack how best to underscore and strengthen the connections between AAC&U’s mission of promoting quality and equity as the foundations of excellence in undergraduate education and the critical work of the administrators, faculty, and staff who lead America’s community colleges. Together, drawing from our respective positions as vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College (Matt) and as senior director for research and assessment at AAC&U (Kate), we hoped to connect the dots and deliver on AAC&U’s potential to reflect the experiences of the association’s community college members.

Stepping up to the challenge

Our goal in designing the session was to create a welcoming space for community college leaders at AAC&U’s annual meeting by offering a session focused specifically on the conversations they wanted to have. AAC&U regularly involves and features community college educators in its publications, meetings, and projects; nonetheless, the association is not on the radar of many community college leaders, who might see its focus as being of limited relevance to their worlds and, moreover, might feel that community colleges have relatively muted voices within the association.

More than anything else, we wanted to make sure that AAC&U and its members at four-year colleges and universities weren’t missing an opportunity to learn from a critical peer group. Community colleges may have a different angle on certain questions than many four-year colleges do, but their concerns are just as real. And because so many students interact with community colleges at some point in their educations, any serious effort to improve liberal education needs to include them.

Ambitiously, we titled our session “Community Colleges, Quality, and Student Success: The Conversations We Should Be Having.” Neither of us knew what to expect from the presentation. Not knowing who the session description would attract, or what interests they would bring, we decided to run the session as a guided discussion. To create an initial crowd-sourced list of questions and topics, we sent an email to all annual meeting registrants from community colleges and used their feedback to develop a set of prompts. We deliberately phrased these prompts somewhat polemically in the hopes of prodding responses that could lead to a robust exchange:

  • Community colleges were designed to build a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.
  • Transfer is workforce.
  • Community colleges should fold themselves into four-year colleges.
  • A free sophomore year is a viable alternative to fully free community college.
  • Community is the blessing, and the curse, of community colleges.

Drawing on his perspective as a community college vice president—and as someone who has been relatively uninvolved with AAC&U over the years, for many of the reasons stated above—Matt prepared some remarks on each topic, which he planned to share at the beginning of the session. By running through the prompts and offering brief glosses on each, we hoped to see what would catch on among the forty to fifty people in the room. After Kate provided an introduction, Matt walked through the first few prompts uneventfully.

The audience members seemed to be biding their time. Then someone asked the question that broke the dam: “What do you think about remediation?” Apparently, everybody in the room had thoughts on the topic, as well as the desire to share those thoughts immediately. The room began to resemble the scene in Airplane II when the flight attendant announced that the plane had run out of coffee.

Responding to the question, Matt observed that a consensus has emerged in the last few years that remedial (also called “developmental” or “foundational”) courses often do more harm than good. This unintended consequence appears to be a function primarily of two factors: relatively poor accuracy in placement testing, and the added time and resources required to complete additional semesters appended to a course of study. As reflected in the title of an influential Complete College America report, time is the enemy: the longer a course of study takes, especially for students with complicated lives, the more opportunity for life to get in the way.3 That counterintuitive finding—backed by empirical research by the Community College Research Center and documented in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, among other places4—has placed a new premium on models that streamline, reduce, or completely bypass traditional remedial coursework.

Most participants were eager to share their experiences with remediation on their own campuses. Matt mentioned the Accelerated Learning Program, a corequisite model for English developed at the Community College of Baltimore County that is gaining purchase nationally. Others described best practices but also challenges and frustrations that turned out to be shared among those in the room.

Sounding the depth of unrealized opportunity

AAC&U is known for its work on the value of liberal education, so it’s not illogical to associate issues like remediation with venues that focus more narrowly on the institutional issues facing community colleges, such as the American Association of Community Colleges or the League for Innovation in the Community College. But as the audience delved into the topic of remediation, they illuminated points of connection among these putatively different areas of work.

First, in a sense, remedial education is general education in its purest form. Both involve ensuring that students develop a set of skills assumed to be common to all (or nearly all) fields of higher education. But discussions about general education and remedial education typically occur in separate venues. General education is often discussed in aspirational terms, remedial education as an institutional or economic problem. Over the last five to ten years, as many faculties have delved into all aspects of the general education curriculum through curricular redesign efforts, the actual content of remediation has been treated as a kind of black box.

This practice of minimizing discussions of remediation persists even at a moment when foundations and states have placed great emphasis on ways to get students through or around remediation more quickly. As college costs have grown more rapidly than wages, the real cost of extending the time to degree has increased. And student loan repayment data show that the students with the most trouble repaying their loans as a group are those students who drop out before completion, with nothing to show for their efforts.5 After decades of relatively little attention paid to graduation rates, the new focus on student completion in the community college sector is overdue.

But treating some faculty members’ lifework as a problem to be minimized or avoided entirely—as recent approaches to remediation via state policy have—means that some outstanding innovations within remedial education don’t get the recognition they deserve. Judging by the enthusiasm, and palpable frustration, with which faculty in the room described what they are doing on their campuses, there is no shortage of good work being done. But much of it is staying local, and our national discourse is the worse for it.

And when the national discourse suffers, so do our students. The majority of new students at community colleges place into at least one remedial class.6 The sheer size of that cohort suggests that it’s worth noticing. From a social equity perspective, we know that higher percentages of students of color and low-income students are enrolled in remediation than their white or high-income peers.7 These are the students most in need of a robust general education, as well as specific job skills. This cohort is where the battle for the educational future will be won or lost.

Moving the conversation forward

On its surface, the conversation at our annual meeting session was about remediation, with all its attendant history, politics, practices, and challenges. But it was also about much more than that.

Over the course of the session, multiple dynamics surfaced, including differences in approach based on state policy, funding models, size, and location (urban versus suburban versus rural). Individuals spoke up to directly challenge our framing of certain issues, to challenge one another, to provide examples of innovation on their own campuses, and even to herald examples from other campuses that had influenced their thinking. In their comments, participants used the language of teaching and learning and evoked an ethos of student-centeredness that clearly demonstrated the connection between remediation and the annual meeting’s theme: “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Like most conference session presenters, at the end we looked at each other and asked, “Was that any good?” We attempted to process the session’s unexpected twists and turns, and we had to admit that we did not fully address any of the issues we had delineated at the beginning. But then, as we were packing up our belongings to make way for the next group of presenters, several individuals came forward to continue the conversation. Some had been vocal during the session; others were speaking for the first time. Later, a colleague from a large, urban community college in Texas that is doing incredible work leveraging a range of strategies—from pathways to high-impact practices to course-embedded assessment—approached one of us to comment positively on the decidedly freewheeling conversation and noted her intention to start presenting her own work to ensure that her voice was part of the national conversation.

That’s an aspiration that we applaud and want to help support. And so, after the session, we asked ourselves, “What needs to happen to ensure that the national conversation about higher education reform more fully reflects the knowledge and efforts of our community college educators?” We settled on four ideas:

  • Focus on faculty work. At every type of institution, faculty are critical to delivering the promise of higher education, and they need to be recognized and rewarded for their work in teaching and learning.
  • Lift up the benefits of exploring different models. Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places, including institutions that are very different from one’s own.
  • Use varied language. Discussions at some community colleges may focus on soft skills rather than on liberal education, even when the outcomes under consideration are the same.
  • Find points of connection around adaptable approaches. For example, high-impact educational practices and student learning assessment share commonalities across different institutional contexts, even when they take different forms.

AAC&U wants to showcase more of the good work taking place at community colleges. And community college educators want to be part of the national discussion. Yet many community college faculty and administrators are challenged to find the bandwidth and resources—from travel funding to course releases to more intangible forms of institutional support—necessary to document and present their work as practitioners and scholars. Providing a space for those who attend AAC&U’s annual meeting to engage in open, honest, and challenging conversations—both with other community colleges and with their four-year peers—will help AAC&U better serve all its institutional members and the faculty, administrators, and students that compose them. We want these conversations to continue at next year’s annual meeting and throughout the year ahead as we look to community colleges as critical partners in higher education’s work to define and drive forward our shared pursuit of our students’ American Dreams.


1. Lynn Pasquerella, “Free Expression, Liberal Education, and Inclusive Excellence,” statement issued on Tuesday, April 4, 2017,

2. “Community College FAQs,” Community College Research Center, accessed April 12, 2018,

3. Elizabeth Ganga, Amy Mazzariello, and Nikki Edgecombe, Developmental Education: An Introduction for Policymakers (Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States, 2018), 4–5, ; Complete College America, Time Is the Enemy (Washington, DC: Complete College America, 2011).

4. Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

5. Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and Meredith Welch, “Two-Year Default Rates by Sector and Completion Status,” Trends in Student Aid 2017 (New York: The College Board, 2017), figure 2016_12A available at

6. Ganga, Mazzariello, and Edgecombe, Developmental Education, 3.

7. “Community College FAQs,” Community College Research Center.

To respond to this article, email with the authors’ names in the subject line.

MATT REED is vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog. KATE DREZEK MCCONNELL is senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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