Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College
reviewed by Joseph N. Hankin - 1977
This is a refreshing book-refreshing because written by a community college faculty member who has also done some administrative work. Too frequently, what we know about the community junior college has come from either a university professor or a college president. L. Steven Zwerling, faculty member and director of an innovative inner-college at Staten Island Community College in New York, has been able to bring fresh perspectives to bear on understanding the community junior college. Unfortunately, however, because he hearkens back to the university and the institutions with which he is personally most familiar for his models, serious weaknesses appear in his discussion.
From Mr. Zwerling's point of view, the community college is essentially a negative institution, although he would readily admit that it is a positive one from the point of view of a conservative society in the traditional sense.
In setting the stage for his major thesis, the author notes that income distribution in our society has remained essentially unchanged and suggests that higher education should contribute to a redistribution of money within the society. Moreover, he points out that a hidden function of schooling is the schools' contribution to help support, maintain, and reproduce our current social and economic order; putting it bluntly: schools have been playing a "class-serving role" (p. 159). He accepts the theory that not IQ but one's socioeconomic background predetermines one's future success or failure; a student's parents, income, educational background, and aspirations are seen as formative and deterministic. The author states:
Instead of blunting the pyramid of the American social and economic structure, the community college plays an essential role in maintaining it.
The community college is in fact a social defense mechanism that resists basic changes in the social structure (pp. xvii, xix).
He frequently states that the expansion of community colleges has played a major role in the process of controlling mobility.
The author, moreover, advances the view that vocational or "semiprofessional" training is "a mechanism for diverting as many young people as possible away from the more advantageous liberal arts or transfer curricula" (p. 55) and:
…the expansion of vocational education . . . was more an ingenious way of providing large numbers of students with access to schooling without disturbing the shape of the social structure than it was an effort to democratize the society. What is important is the kind of education one gets, and vocational education is not the kind that leads to more social mobility (p. 61).
Much of the second part of the book is devoted to what can be done about this state of affairs: "If we want a different, less hierarchical society, we need to begin to restructure our institutions so that they will deliver more egalitatian messages" (p. 251). As for students: "Before they can make their personal plans, they have to understand society's master plans for them" (p. 164).
In the first half of the book Zwerling uses an impressive array of up-to-date statistics and recent literature to demonstrate the current situation. In the second half of the book, suggesting new directions, he laments the fact-although he has cited many statistical studies earlier-that some of the evidence he publishes is not scientific, but rather relies on his own personal experience. The reader will find that, to a very great extent, this humanizes the statistics, skillfully making several points in ways in which dry statistics would be unable to impress the reader.
The chapter on the history of two-year colleges is a good solid piece of research. Later in the book, the author seems to attempt to demonstrate that the two-year college has fulfilled its historical mission by quoting Jerome Karabel, who put forward the idea that a school's evaluation should depend on the "value added" to its students and that the most highly selective colleges, where students earn the highest grades and graduate at the highest rate, may not be the most successful. Unfortunately, this stands contrary to most of the documentation in the rest of the book.
Zwerling questions what it is about socioeconomic status that contributes to either success or failure, and answers that it lies in the realm of noncognitive personality traits: "Success in the world of work, for example, has more to do with one's motivation and ability to compete, with how one asserts authority, with one's ability to accept the work norms of society than with one's cognitive skills (one's ability to read, write, cipher, etc.)" (p. 131). Moreover, he makes the important point: "If there is one thing I've learned through years of experience encountering and working with community college students, it's that most of those whom Monroe and others describe as inept and pathological in fact lack confidence rather than ability" (p. 143).
Hence, we arrive at the importance of out-of-class supportive services and the teaching of adaptive and survival skills, which is a very positive part of this book. The educational development seminars Zwerling refers to frequently in the last half are media for many of his ideas in building up the confidence of individual students, and hold great promise. If the author were to indicate who the trainers are and how they are trained, this would be a meaningful contribution to the education of two-year college students and, indeed, all college students. By citing statistics showing high percentages of graduation and high transfer rates, he does indicate that personal attention at at least one institution pays off.
This reviewer finds himself less than kind toward Zwerling's work in general, however, inasmuch as the author would eliminate two-year institutions, and often fails to note their positive contributions. In some ways brilliant, this book frequently seems to arrive at conclusions and then select the facts and interpretations to support those conclusions. The result is an interesting and well-written critique, but an essentially misleading one.
For example, Zwerling laments the fact that, just as the early public elementary and high schools were supposed to instill in the children of factory workers those traits felt to be essential for good citizenship and upright moral behavior, so was the curriculum of the two-year college established to do the same thing for its blue-collar clientele. Actually, if one examines the stated objectives in the catalogs of virtually any institution in America, it would be found that all these colleges, not just the two-year ones, seek to instill "motherhood" traits in their charges. While he abhors the fact that an instructor teaches a course differently from the way it is described in the schedule of instruction, this happens in many colleges, both two-and four-year. While he frequently criticizes the community college for high dropout rates, he also does note that the dropout rate of four-year colleges is quite high, but makes little of that fact. Although he laments the fact that income distribution has remained unchanged, he does note that there has been a marked increase in income levels of all people and in the level of educational attainment through the years for all classes. Presumably, then, the quality of life is better for more people.
Throughout the book, he claims that "cooling out" (the process originally popularized by Burton Clark to mean that students who come in aspiring to baccalaureate transfer programs are gradually moved to more "realistic" choices and frequently even out of the institution altogether) is "one of the two-year colleges' primary social functions" (p. 35); yet nowhere in the volume is there an attempt to study the numbers on both sides of the ledger-the number of students who have been "cooled out" as opposed to the number who have met their aspiration levels with the help of community college personnel. If, indeed, counselors do help students who underaspire to find their true potential, why does he not then give these examples too? Finally, in a chapter on the economics of higher education he indicates that there is a negative redistribution of money from the poor to the rich and that, in effect, the poor are sending the rich through college. In this chapter, by showing that the state aid for community colleges is much less than that for state colleges or university students, he tends to ignore the fact that there are local subsidies to the community colleges, as befits their "community" nature.
Already observed is the feeling that he frequently makes the mistake of assuming that his own experience, that of the urban community college environment, is the same in all of the more than twelve hundred community colleges. Perhaps he compares notes too frequently with his colleague Ivan Kronenfeld, rather than getting out to visit other campuses. Even when he indicates that he has visited colleges in Illinois and California, the examples he gives from these are all ones of poor counseling practices. He states that up to 75 percent of new students choose tranfer programs, but again he measures from what he knows best, rather than what is actually happening in numerous other two-year colleges. Finally, as shall be noted below, there is much good going on at Staten Island Community College, but there are similar and other practices elsewhere, and too much show-and-tell from one institution does not befit a book that purports to examine the national two-year college scene.
While in several places he makes much of the fact that few two-year college students graduate, nowhere does he question whether they should graduate. He pays little or no attention to who these students are: Did they transfer? Did they stop-out? Did they come to the community college only for their own limited objectives? Indeed, many students in the two-year community college are not there for the purpose of graduating. The majority of more than four million two-year college students in America are part-time students, studying in credit and/or noncredit courses that may have for these students limited objectives of refreshment, retraining, or just plain love of learning; yet the author completely ignores adult education and community services, although he does show the full historical development of community colleges' transfer and occupational programs. Indeed, the two years in a community college are not the "final opportunity" he posits for the community college students. In fact, for minority group and lower-class students who have made it, the community college has been no impediment-yet he ignores this fact; declaring over and over again that the two-year colleges are structured for the failure of so many of their students does not prove the statement.
His attack on vocationalism is nothing new. He does advance an interesting theory:
Later, when enrollments began to increase in the colleges, when it became apparent that waves of new students were threatening to swamp the colleges and universities as they had engulfed the high schools, the reaction at the college level was identical to that of the high schools before them-create a vocational track (p. 59).
While this is an interesting parallel, one must ask whether it is forced. However, the author immodestly asserts Zwerling's law: "As the rate of enrollment-increase in any educational system becomes geometric, a second vocational education track emerges" (p. 61). While his attack is nothing new, it is lamentable that he would refer to statements by Norman Harris as "incredible arrogance." Harris had written: "To put it bluntly, we already have an oversupply of philosopher-kings. The era of the educated unemployed is not just around the corner-it is here!" Zwerling claims that Harris and others "fail to see the intrinsic rewards of a liberal education -even for a cab driver" (p. 253). Yet he fails to deal with questions of what false expectations might be engendered by having an overpopulation of baccalaureates. He regularly shrugs off manpower documents of the 1950s through the 1970s which claimed that only between 18 and 21 percent of employed workers will require a baccalaureate in the 1980s and, instead, indicates that "this is to say the least a somewhat dubious estimate; it curiously corresponds rather too closely to their assertion that 25% of high-school graduates . . . have the ability to achieve a baccalaureate degree" (pp. 72-73). One must question why vocational programs are rated "second best." Why can we not have John Gardner's definition of excellence in all programs? Interestingly, the four-year colleges, during the boom period of the l950s and 1960s, were trying to do what the universities before them did in terms of attracting a higher-level liberal arts clientele. Now, in a period of enrollment decline in the 1970s, the four-year colleges are adding vocational programs again. Disappointingly, Zwerling uses a four-year bachelor of arts degree as the measuring stick for the two-year community college, without recognizing that in four-year colleges there are "second-best" educational programs too, and without recognizing that, these days, even the "terminal" students in occupational programs in the community colleges frequently transfer to four-year institutions to continue their education.
In summary, though taking facts that may be true in numbers of instances, Zwerling, by not redressing the balance, could give first-time readers about community colleges the wrong ideas. Fortunately, few uninitiated will read this volume. One hopes that he will write a sequel inasmuch as his institution, Staten Island Community College, has been combined with Richmond College into the College of Staten Island and he may have achieved his objective: " . .. the elimination of junior or community colleges since they are the most class-serving of educational institutions" (p. 251). Only time will tell whether in this combined institution the Associate degree has been driven out in a kind of Gresham's Law of education. Perhaps an alternative solution might be to force each beginning student to commence his or her career in a two-year college. In America today more than 55 percent of first-time students actually do begin their careers in these institutions. Time will also tell whether these students are found on the positive or negative side of the societal ledger.