The Community College as a Crucible of Innovation
July 2012, Volume 7, Number 7
Editor’s Note: This issue of Innovation Showcase is an excerpt from the League’s 2010 report, The Nature of Innovation in the Community College. The League celebrates innovation and invites manuscripts from community college innovators for publication in Innovation Showcase. Click here for author guidelines.
Forged from elements of the university and the high school, the community college has become one of the most successful institutional innovations of all time. As it has evolved over the past 100 plus years, the community college has become a crucible of innovation, an innovation spawning innovations.
Designed originally as a single-purpose institution to provide the first two years of a collegiate education—a junior college to Harper’s senior college—the community college responded to social and economic needs and became a multipurpose institution. By the 1960s, it had become a comprehensive community college with programs in transfer education, vocational and technical education, developmental education, general education, and community services—five different purposes and five different colleges cobbled together under one roof, or at least under one system of management and governance. This was a rich mix of programs, purposes, and personnel, a creative and fermenting dough from which a great many innovations would rise—prompted by competition among the programs and the opportunity to create constructive alliances across programs. The critics who charged that “the community college is trying to be too many things for too many people” were silenced by the sheer number of innovations.
Comprehensive programs were necessary if this new institution was to serve the new students who came to community colleges in droves during the 1960s and who still come today at 10 million and counting. These were not the traditional students admitted to Harvard or the University of Nebraska or California State University at Riverside; they were new, nontraditional students. They were the first of their generation to attend college. They were returning homemakers, dislocated workers, older Americans. There were large numbers of minority students and large numbers of immigrants. There were more
women enrolled than men. The majority attended part time, and the majority worked part time or full time.
These nontraditional students required for their success nontraditional programs, nontraditional student services, nontraditional faculty, and nontraditional approaches to teaching and learning. The community college responded and became a crucible of innovation. The majority of these nontraditional students had one thing in common: Most were unprepared for success at the collegiate level. They also represented high-need populations. Four-year colleges and universities had closed their doors to these students; the open-door philosophy at the community college offered a second chance. As Frank Newman, former president of the Education Commission of the States, said decades ago, “The community colleges have been assigned the toughest tasks of higher education.” Undaunted by this assignment, community college leaders have for the most part embraced the task and made a priority of creating successful opportunities for students not well acquainted with success in school. Current experiments such as “Bridging the Gap” and “Achieving the Dream,” funded by foundations, are flagship programs that reflect this priority. These two programs, in addition to hundreds of others established by individual community colleges and organizations across the country to ensure student success, have made the community college an institution committed to innovation.
As the community college prospered and matured—no president since Nixon has failed to praise the community college for its contributions to American society—there was a new confidence among its leaders. A vision began to emerge that portrayed the community college as a key player in keeping the country competitive, as the first and last chance for millions of Americans to achieve success in college, as a gateway for the acculturation of immigrants, and as an American social innovation that could be exported to other countries. In an article in The Washington Post on July 12, 2009, President Barack Obama announced a major new initiative to create free online courses through the nation’s community colleges, declaring that, “Our community colleges can serve as 21st century job training centers.” In the first decade of the 21st century, there is a robust community college at the table of higher education, a strong, accessible college that is welcomed in statehouses and the White House. The can-do American spirit animates the entrepreneurial community college as a force to make a difference. This spirit thrives in the crucible of innovation that is the hallmark of the contemporary community college.
From The Nature of Innovation in the Community College, Terry O’Banion, Principal Investigator, and Laura Weidner, Research Associate, published by the League for Innovation in the Community College (2010). Click here to access the full report.