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Defending the Community College Equity Agenda

reviewed by Michael W. Kirst - April 30, 2007

coverTitle: Defending the Community College Equity Agenda
Author(s): Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest (Eds.)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801884470, Pages: 328, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

America’s 1,200 community colleges enroll nearly half of credit-earning undergraduates and first year students. However, scholarly attention to this growing postsecondary sector is dwarfed by research and publications concerning four-year institutions. Community colleges serve a disproportionate share of low-income students, including 79 percent of California’s Latino students. From 1990 to 2000, public four-year institutions grew by 3.5 percent, while public two-year enrollments grew by 14 percent.

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda, edited by Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest, is a timely book that addresses several key threats to the community college equity agenda. The co-editors have long and deep backgrounds through their leadership roles in the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, and only two of the ten chapters are authored by researchers unaffiliated with Teachers College. The book is filled with current statistics, trends, and citations that will be a bonanza for future scholars. It also analyzes how a small sample of 15 colleges in six states has responded to challenges in pursuing an equity agenda. It ends with an excellent summary of the equity outcomes, as well as recommendations to improve institutional practices and policies.

The book begins with the historic dilemma of how community colleges can balance their multiple missions—four-year college transfer, vocational education, continuing education for businesses, basic adult education such as learning English, and recreational courses. This multiple mission analysis is highlighted by the authors’ concern for a recent trend of shifting college attention and policy away from low-income and disadvantaged students. Moreover, community colleges aspire to move up the academic ladder by emulating practices and policies at four-year institutions. The introductory chapter emphasizes that a larger and growing proportion of community college students are recent high school graduates, so community college missions need to shift more to the 17-20 year-old age range. The multiple mission concern is highlighted in Chapter 3, “Performance Accountability as Imperfect Panacea." The authors conclude that “accountability, especially performance-based funding, so far has been a paper tiger. It has not threatened college funding or enrollments” (p. 249).

Chapter 4, “Increasing Competition and Growth of the For-Profits,” is fascinating. It includes some criticisms of for-profits, but also stresses that for-profit community colleges have focused more effort on job placement than the public community college case study institutions that the authors studied (p. 96).

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda includes a significant focus on the community college role in preparing students for work. An entire chapter is devoted to industry certification programs with an emphasis upon industry technology certification. This chapter (6) analyzes the rapid rise and fall of industry certification during the technology boom and bust from 1995 to 2005. Workforce issues also are featured in an excellent chapter (8) by Norton Grubb of the University of California at Berkeley that focuses on the inadequate community college resources devoted to counseling.

There are two chapters on the remediation issue and another chapter on dual enrollment (9) that helps high school students understand academic challenges at community colleges. However, the book’s coverage of weak secondary school academic preparation is my only disappointment. There is no chapter or deep analysis that looks back to secondary schools as a cause and solution for excessive remediation (Kirst and Venezia, 2004). The book does not have a K-14 focus and is essentially a horizontal treatment of the community college rather than a vertical perspective. The authors mention the college preparation issue several times, but do not push much beyond that.

For example, hundreds of different placement tests are used to evaluate entering students, so it can be difficult for students to understand what is expected of them. California community colleges, for example, use more than 100 different tests. Texas has a required statewide placement exam, but many colleges in Texas also use their own exam for placement. The most widely used placement tests are constructed by ETS and ACT, but many others are designed by higher education departments or faculty at individual community college campuses.

There is a wide range of acceptable student-performance levels on placement tests, and tracking the proportion of students who need remedial education is virtually impossible. Indeed, estimates of the number and percent of remedial students are all over the place. What does "remedial" mean? While a term that is used so frequently, and so freely, might seem to call for a clear definition, when applied to postsecondary education, its meaning is murky at best. None of the experts are comfortable with the current definitions.

The most widely cited remedial rates from the U.S. Department of Education, “Condition of Education, 2001,” are among the lowest: 42 percent of students in two-year institutions, and 20 percent in four-year institutions. Other indicators are much higher. The Academic Senate for the 109 California Community Colleges found far more than half of their entering students were placed at a "level below college readiness." The U.S. Education Department's "Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000" reports that 12th graders in 1992 had a remediation rate of 61.1 percent for community colleges and 26 percent at four-year colleges.

Once remedial students reach community college this book provides impressive and novel insights about developmental education. The use of case studies works well for these topics. The authors conclude their case study with two major points:

…there is no general agreement as to the specific reading, writing, and math skills needed to learn from the postsecondary curriculum. The lack of a common benchmark creates problems for deciding what should be taught in developmental education courses….

…there is a serious shortage of controlled evaluation research to support them, which is troubling in view of claims that postsecondary remedial course work is ineffective. (p.257)

Overall, Defending the Community College Equity Agenda provides a balanced picture of the challenges facing community colleges and the resulting inadequate outcomes for students. The final chapter is a powerful indictment of many components of community colleges including their inadequate: completion rates, developmental education operations, information systems, transfer of credits to four-year institutions, advising, and quality of online instruction. But community colleges enroll almost anyone who wants to come regardless of preparation. Community college budgets are very fiscally constrained, and often lack enrollment growth. Moreover, need-based student financial aid has not kept up with the changing student bodies. Many students, however, do succeed in community colleges despite long odds.

Co-editors Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest summarize their conclusions this way:

It is fair to say that community colleges have made a crucial contribution to opening college access, but their role in providing overall equity in higher education outcomes is less clear. The majority of students who start community college do not earn a degree or certificate. (p. 247)

Thus, the good intentions and hard work of community college faculty in promoting the success of their students are not reinforced by institutional incentives and information systems. (p. 248)

Teachers College is the site for a multi-million dollar U.S. Department of Education randomized clinical trial of community college interventions such as dual enrollment. We can look forward to more major publications by Bailey and Morest.


Adelman, C. (2005). Principal indicators of student academic histories in postsecondary education,1972-2000. Washington, DC: US Department of Education. Institute Of Education Sciences.

Kirst, M., & Venezia, A. (Eds.). (2004). From high school to college. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

U.S. Department of Education. (2001). Condition of education, 2001. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 30, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14442, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 11:05:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Kirst
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL W. KIRST is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University. He is a faculty affiliate with the Department of Political Science and has a courtesy appointment with the Graduate School of Business. Professor Kirst was a member of the California State Board of Education (1975‑1982) and was its president from 1977 to 1981.
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