Community colleges seem to be under siege once again. Community college faculty are reporting renewed efforts by college administrators to increase the number of students who leave with some kind of credential, preferably either a degree or a certificate.
It's somewhat understandable for this kind of movement to occur at four-year institutions, which have a tradition of preparing students for either a professional career or graduate school. But policy officials looking to increase credential completion at the community college level are clearly unfamiliar with the history and mission of community colleges, which are to provide individuals—members of the community—with learning opportunities tailored to meet their individual needs, not to meet the reporting requirements of the institution, or to tick a box on the goal sheet of the current administration in Washington.
Less than twenty percent of students at some community colleges may end up with a certificate or degree, but if those students needing 12 credits for a promotion get the job they went to college to get, or a new Harley owner now has a way to work thanks to taking a community college motorcycle training class, the community college has traditionally counted those as successful students. More and more thought leaders are thinking twice about that.
Educators purposely work at community colleges because they’ll have the chance to look at things a little differently, and work with a population that either wants something different from education, or wants it a different way than four-year colleges offer. Since this seems to be causing a division between those who shape community college policy, and those who work at them, I would propose all community colleges begin offering the following certificate program immediately.
Certificate title: Cultural Innovation
Requirement: Successful completion of one four-credit course, The History of Pizza
Course Description: Utilizing a case study approach, students will explore the many facets of pizza and its relationship to society. Suggested toppings—sorry, make that topics—include The Origins of Pizza, The Role of Pizza in its Home Country, The Arrival of Pizza in Post-World-War II America, Pizza Varieties and American Regionalism, The Economics of Pizza in Professional Sports and Beyond, Current Trends in Pizza, and Pizza and Pineapple—Magnificent or Mayhem. Students will participate in a pizza taste-test towards the end of the class, writing a final paper analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each pizza, and produce three well-researched, data-rich, culturally-anchored predictions of the future of pizza.
Cost: Free to all students.
Grading: This is a pass/fail course.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone to like in this proposal. Students heading to community college after some time away from formal learning will be reintroduced to the rigors of academia through studying a subject that is of great familiarity and, for most, personal interest. Key academic concepts, including all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reference-based research, can be taught in ways students will long remember. Administrators get more credential completers, and teachers get to, well, teach the way they were meant to teach at the community college level.
Appropriate preparation of a future workforce, along with advancement of a love of learning, could never be more important than it is now. At the same time, shoehorning students into degrees that will not serve them well, or creating certificate programs that have no real worth to society, devalues the worth of all credentials, ultimately hurting the society community colleges are designed to help.
Thinking outside the box is the raison d’être of community colleges. Policy makers would do well to remember that, and encourage community colleges to live up to that goal.
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