Brief review of Matt Reed’s “Confessions of a Community College Administrator”

I recently read Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Administrator, which was released earlier this spring. Bottom line: read it if you want a good description of community colleges today and an administrator’s perspective on the dilemmas of the public 2-year college sector.

Reed’s book is a result of the popularity and visibility of his blog, which now appears on Inside Higher Ed, generally 2-3 times a week. The book is different in scope, though readers of his blog will be familiar with his perspective if not his policy arguments at the end. It starts with an accessible introduction to the world of community colleges, written primarily for those who have no contact with community colleges, moves through several chapters devoted to the life of community-college administrators, and ends with a sharp policy proposal for community colleges. The first few chapters comprise a solid orientation to community colleges, and the middle chapters are a useful insider perspective. The fact that Reed started his career in a for-profit institution guarantees that his perspective is not just from someone who started and has remained at community colleges.1

Reed’s prescription for community colleges falls in three broad categories: learning from for-profit institutions, performing better at the core community-college mission, and expanding and improving partnerships. From for-profits, Reed thinks community colleges should take not the marketing and exploitation but the type of blocking-and-tackling tasks that for-profits turn into routines: helping students with bureaucratic crap like FAFSA, managing short-session and other experimental course calendars, specializing without guilt, and helping students explicitly with career issues. Reed also thinks community colleges need to “kill the credit hour,” reform remedial (or developmental) education, and experiment with differential fees by curriculum area. The area of partnerships that Reed discusses include ties with other academic institutions (K-12 schools with dual enrollment, regional public universities with articulation agreements, and doctoral institutions to provide teaching opportunities to graduate students). Reed argues that community colleges should also be exploring deeper industry partnerships, granting credit for prior learning experiences (such as through the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning), and engaging in more fundraising.

Reed’s remedies are most sensible when they tackle the operational details of community colleges (yes, some courses can be taught intensively in a month) or the cooperative work that academic administrators spend considerable time nurturing or fixing. Reed is so busy cataloging those issues that he fails to explain the non-operational benefits: most importantly, the strategic advantage of tinkering with the boundaries of the community college mission is to help it become sustainable politically. For example, if middle-class families have considerable experience with their children’s dual-enrollment classes while their children are in high school, they will be more likely to understand and value the mission of community colleges even if their children attend public universities or private institutions. The boundaries of community colleges change regularly, and to the extent that there is a political solution to the underfunding of community colleges, it is to the benefit of most students in community colleges to experiment with boundaries to make the case for robust community colleges. What is true for dual enrollment is also true for other ideas, such as honors colleges in community colleges, one of the ideas in the Century Foundation report released in late May. Similarly, local articulation agreements between community colleges and nearby public universities can tamp down the turf warfare that can occasionally erupt. That is the inter-level equivalent of Reed’s proposal for vocational programs to be limited within a state and housed regionally–Reed argues that on both pedagogical and budget grounds, specialization is a positive good for community colleges.

Reed’s omission of the political challenges of cooperation with other institutions is a significant weakness when it comes to what is essentially a range of non-competition agreements, including specialization in workforce education. Reed makes a good case on principle attacking the mission stretch of community colleges and what Reed perceives as the inability for community colleges to be sustainable for all of its missions. As he notes in both the book and in his blog, in a system where public funds are an inadequate subsidy and you cannot ethically or legally charge students the full cost of their education, each additional student is a net cost instead of net income. Unlike for-profit universities, community colleges are thus penalized financially for every additional student they serve. Reed’s proposed solution is to make community colleges specialize when it comes to the workforce parts of the community-college mission and for the most part focus on lower-division academic work in the liberal arts and other general education subjects. Were a community college able to have such a narrow focus, it could gain the benefits of specialization, which Reed associates with for-profit universities.2

There are two problems with Reed’s policy proposal here: it is not politically feasible, and it does not address the real sustainability dilemma he describes. I strongly suspect Reed knows the reasons why narrowing the community college mission is not politically viable: as general-purpose regional institutions, community colleges serve multiple masters and multiple missions. He even suggests an expansion of the list of friends (and masters) of community colleges, on the one hand asking community colleges to reach out more to private industry even while he suggests they limit their vocational roles. You can’t do both. Except for the postwar world of flagship universities, comprehensive and multiple purposes are the history of public higher education in the country. Someone will be given the task of workforce education every X miles, and in a post-financial-crisis world where corporations have sloughed off on-the-job training, community colleges are those someones. Community colleges have joined high schools as legatee institutions–Larry Cuban’s term for social institutions that inherit a broad range of purposes. I don’t think it is easy to undo that history.

Nor would focusing more on academic education solve the basic fact that states have disinvested in community colleges. Community colleges without comprehensive workforce education would simply have their budgets slashed further, as they lose part of their mission and political support from business communities and politicians who strongly identify with the vocational aspects of community colleges. If there is a lesson other states can draw from the disaster that befell California’s higher ed system in the last few years, it is that comprehensive institutions’ turning away students is a really bad idea, politically. Many community colleges and regional state universities have “accomplished” the same end in softer ways, simply by being unable to offer as many required classes as students need, but that’s just a slower method of political suicide. To say that Reed is unrealistic is not to say I have a better solution other than more public funding for community colleges, but that is what community colleges require. Yes, accountability and pressures to improve remedial education, and also more funding.

The other area of Reed’s prescriptions where I see some significant problems are where he and I have recently exchanged blog posts recently on the issue of the credit hour, so I won’t rehash that other than to point to those posts on May 9May 22May 29, and June 3.

I have a few quibbles with Reed that are not related to his last-chapter prescriptions. One is an error I think he makes in writing about past practice, something I discussed two weeks ago. Another is his description of academic freedom as an institutional privilege. Er, no: it is a common tactic among college lawyers (with a Voice of God tone, usually) to assert that academic freedom is institutional, not individual. But there is little one can find in the history of academic freedom in the U.S. to suggest its development was accorded institutions and not individual faculty (or students, as I have argued before). Reed’s discipline is political science, and in this regard his views of faculty rights are oddly suspicious of faculty intent, on these questions and also on tenure. Yes, on occasion faculty can and do make ridiculous arguments using generally-accepted principles as starting points. I think that capacity for sophistry is part of why we became grad students in the first place, and it might help to remember that there are roughly a million faculty in the U.S. The existence of extreme expression of views doesn’t make the abused principles less appropriate. But, again, these disagreements are about issues tangential to the book.

Go read it; it joins Mike Rose’s books and Rebecca Cox’s The College Fear Factor as important perspectives I will recommend to those interested in community colleges and their students. Addendum: Reed has a long, thoughtful response on the issue of saying no to community requests. Go read it.

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  1. Reed is the type of person Ben Wildavsky should have interviewed when looking for useful cross-sector perspectives a few years ago, but that’s a different conversation. []
  2. Plenty of non-profit colleges specialize in search of a niche, especially for liberal-arts colleges that have a limited set of professional graduate degrees. To that extent, Reed is exaggerating the innovation he associates with for-profits. []

3 responses to “Brief review of Matt Reed’s “Confessions of a Community College Administrator””

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    “some courses can be taught intensively in a month” oh? Name one that is not, eh, physical education-based.

    1. CCPhysicist

      I teach one — a general education science class — that could easily fit into that time period. You just have to have decent advising so students don’t take too many of them at once.

      I teach it in a 6-week summer semester that might be the optimal time frame because the class periods are exactly the same 75-minute length as in a regular semester. (When I say “optimal”, I mean that students succeed at a higher rate than in a regular 15-week semester where it meets Tue-Thurs instead of 5 days per week.) To do it in a month would mean something like two 50-min classes with a 15 minute break between them, which would require restructuring the content, but it would work. I’d predict lower success, however, because a few things in the course require time to be properly assimilated.

      Some of our math classes, most notably the ones that might be described as high-school-level math content taught at college to liberal arts majors who didn’t take that math in HS, also work very well in that kind of tight format.

  2. Glen S. McGhee

    At my old CC, we ran “weekend college” — Fri, Sat and Sunday nights for a few weeks, from 2 hours to 3 hours each night.

    It was horrendous for both students and teachers, and almost impossible to keep enthusiasm up. And how were students to find time for a Gordon Rule term paper? No one seemed to care, because the students came.

    Instructors even cut classes down to run only half that time. “After one-and-one-half hours, students lose interest,” was one explanation I got from an instructor that sent students home before they were supposed to.

    And who would complain? There were no admins around to monitor it, and janitors wouldn’t tell either — I felt sorry for them when I finally gathered all my materials together after one of these nights. Even the janitors liked going home early.