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Mapping the Town: Highlighting Adelman’s “Moving Into Town” Monograph

by Linda Serra Hagedorn - August 30, 2005

Clifford Adelman’s latest publication, Moving Into Town—And Moving On creates an analogy comparing community colleges to a town. Using national and representative data, this work examines the educational outcomes of traditionally aged community college students through their transcript records. The work corrects myths and brings new facts to light.

Since the inception of American community colleges a little over a century ago, soaring student populations have been met with an expanding college mission.  Like a growing and thriving town that responds through new businesses, services, and increased construction, community colleges have responded not only to increases in demand for their services, but also to growing diversity of students who benefit from their offerings.  Dr. Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, recently published Moving Into Town—And Moving On, wherein he analogized the community college to a town and provided analyses of progress of traditionally aged community college students.  Analogies serve as useful tools providing clarity to the unknown through comparison to the familiar.  Adelman’s recent project was inspired by the earlier work of Clark Kerr (1963) who likened the smaller environments of early colleges with towns while seeing modern universities as cities.

Similar to towns, the inhabitants of community colleges (i.e., students) differ by their purpose and longevity of occupancy.  Adelman likened some students to visitors who come as temporary residents but never establish a true residency (earning less than 30 credits).  Other students are more like tenants who establish a temporary home on a short-term basis with the realization that it may be home for now, but there are plans for a future move (30 credits or more but not the majority of college credits).  Finally, finishing the analogy, Adelman assigns the title of homeowner to the students who establish a residency and connection with the community college through the earning of at least 60 % of all of their undergraduate credits at the community college.

The analogy refreshes and supports dialogue of the differences between community college students and their four-year university counterparts.  Furthermore, the reader is encouraged to differentiate community college students based on their course-taking actions that ultimately may determine the educational benefits derived.  The town taxonomy emphasizes the greater heterogeneity among community college students than that among their four-year counterparts.  Using Adelman’s metaphor, one might map community college towns and university cities on different continents across the globe.  

Interestingly, higher education researchers, policymakers, and administrators have known that older students who attend college are much more likely to attend a community college.  While that fact remains true, Adelman informs us that more traditionally aged students are choosing community colleges.  Note the emphasis on the word choosing.  Community colleges are not only higher education for those who could not be academically accepted at more prestigious institutions.  Community colleges have more to offer than open admission policies.  Price, diversity, smaller class size, convenient locations, and other qualities are attracting more traditionally aged students regardless of their academic prowess and likelihood of acceptance in prestigious universities.  Adelman reminds us that 40 % of all traditionally aged students in higher education enter through the portals of community colleges.  Another corrected myth is that community colleges are the choice for students of color.  Adelman has shown that with the exception of Latinos, traditionally aged students of color are no more likely to enroll in community colleges than their Caucasian counterparts.  Perhaps most important of all is the bursting of the long held conclusion that community colleges serve to “cool out” students from obtaining bachelor degrees.  Or said differently and within the metaphor, community colleges are towns with opportunities for those who wish to participate rather than deserts providing a false oasis beckoning low achievement students with a mirage composed only of mist and without substance.  

Within the metaphor, the community college town contains six distinct groupings that can be likened to communities or neighborhoods: (a) traditional academic students seeking transfer, (b) intermediate occupational students seeking credentials, (c) weaker secondary school students earning a small number of credits, (d) “passer-bys” who appear for only a short time and then disappear, (e) temporary transfers who take but a few credits and then move on, and (f) undergraduate reverse transfers.  Just as neighborhoods tend to group individuals with similar backgrounds, the community college town contains diversity within these described or circumscribed groupings.  

This classification scheme allows us to group students in accordance with their activities and course-taking patterns rather than by the usual demographics of gender, ethnicity, or age.  Adelman’s typology describes the diversity of the American community college in a new light—measured by how students utilize and live within the “town” rather than by condition of birth.  Of course like most typologies, Adelman’s may look less ideal when viewed from alternate or opposing angles.  There are streams of diversity running through the six categories that also could be used to define and separate the groupings.  For example, predominant level of course work such as remedial versus college level may also be a hefty divider of community college students—although much of the report repudiates the long term effect of remediation if students pass the courses.  Full and part time enrollment (enrollment intensity) or even demographics such as distance between home and campus may be useful in defining the taxonomy.  Although addressed briefly, the differences between students in "trade-like" vocational programs and those in more “liberal arts” type curricula was not been given sufficient weight.  Many community colleges might be compared to segregated towns because vocational and liberal arts faculty and students virtually never meet, never speak, and remain completely separate.  Vocational courses and apprenticeship programs such as culinary arts, welding, and auto theory typically require students to don clothing appropriate to their goals.  These students’ appearance on campus immediately separates them from those on campus to attend an English, History or Mathematics course.  Walking on any campus that includes true vocational curriculums will likely reveal student social groupings by discipline.  Although anecdotal, I would like to add a personal comment based on 30 years of community college involvement.  I cannot remember ever seeing a student dressed in auto theory overalls conversing comfortably within a group of traditional students decked in the trends of student garb.  

While the Moving Into Town report ventures into new territory, it also brings us back to the traditional measures of success of community college students—namely subsequent attendance at a four-year university.  Using national data (NELS88/2000) and logistic regression, Adelman points out that aspirations, academic resources, and socio-economic level remain statistically significant predictors.  While these analyses really bring no surprises, we must accept the fact that although community colleges are very different from universities, if students are to cross the bridge to the "big city” (i.e., university), the typical predictors still hold fast and that academic outcomes count when the goal is academic (i.e., bachelor degrees).  

Through tables delineating the first institution of attendance by 12th graders from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992, we see expected trends of an increasing percentage of students from the second through fifth quintile choosing community colleges.  In only the highest quintile is the trend one of decreasing enrollments.  Logistic regression equations verify that students who begin postsecondary education at the community college are more likely to have lower educational expectations, to have delayed entry, to not have taken advanced mathematics in high school, and overall to not have participated in intense academic curricula in high school.  

Back to the trichotomy of visitor, tenant, and homeowner, there is a surprise ending of sorts.  Tenants appear to be the group most likely to succeed—at least in terms of the typical postsecondary outcomes of transfer and retention.  Perhaps this may be likened to a case of declining property values for those who invested as homeowners.  It pays to come “to town” but not stay too long.  Other important findings are that what counts for transfer are college level mathematics, credits during summer, continuous enrollments, and a lack of withdrawals and repeats.  

Like other of Adelman’s reports that utilize national transcript data, the current report provides a clear prescription for researchers and others.  The courses in which students enroll, the intensity of the curriculum, consistent enrollment, and persistence within courses (i.e., not dropping or withdrawing) contribute to the success of the student and to the well-being of the town.  Moreover, the reader may come away from the analogy with a fresh perspective of traditionally aged community college students.  Adelman has invited us to appreciate community colleges as postsecondary institutions with a high level of diversity deserving different snapshots and desegregation of the inhabitants.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12139, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:42:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Linda Hagedorn
    University of Florida
    E-mail Author
    LINDA SERRA HAGEDORN the Director of the TRUCCS Research Center is professor and chair of Educational Administration and Policy at the University of Florida.
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