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Students Are Not Widgets to be Processed: Restructuring the Community College with Student Learning at the Center

by Sara Parker - January 18, 2022

Knowing that our current systems produce inequitable outcomes, community colleges are working to transform. As they do so, they must find ways to pursue and implement these system-level changes without neglecting individual-level changes in practice or a commitment to student learning.

As we state in our introduction to the series, its often the case that when researchers study causative factors and analyze metrics of student success, they often dont capture the intersubjective experiences of students. Or, the assumptions of who students are, and therefore what they need to succeed, is based on an outdated notion of college student.  An important starting point is how students articulate their personal goals of success.  Although the lack of degree completion is often viewed as a failure, in many cases it reflects the realities of student lives, that 2/3 can only attend part-time and they have a multitude of responsibilities, or their material lives require more than academic interventions.  This weeks commentaries in different ways center on how students experience and navigate their education, along with the importance of developing analytical frameworks that differentiate community college students from the analytical norm of 18-22 years old pursuing a baccalaureate degree. In different ways, they both seek to ground the discussion of equity in the community college by placing students lives in the center. We look forward to the conversations that these commentaries inspire.


- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

What does it mean to center student learning at community colleges? As Singer (1961) famously noted, In any area of scholarly inquiry, there are always several ways in which the phenomena under study may be sorted and arranged for purposes of systemic analysis . . . the observer may choose to focus upon the parts or upon the whole, upon the components or upon the system (p. 77). To focus on a student, on their learning, is to focus on the individual. This involves asking questions such as: What does this student need from us to learn? How are we assessing learning, and how does what we find inform change? How can we ensure that quality teaching is occurring? We expect that when students experience quality learning at the individual level, it will collect up to produce wholesale positive outcomes.

Yet, we know that measurable outcomes writ largesuccess rates, persistence, transfer, and graduation ratesare low and/or disparate across various ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and other groups. This reality compels institutions, at the macro level, to address systemic barriers in pursuit of increasing student success. In other words, understanding that our current systems produce inequitable outcomes, we attempt to transform the systems.

As Van Noy et al. (2016) summarized in their article on community college structures, Recent research has focused on understanding the overall set of institutional policies and practices that together create the structure that can support (or impede) student success (p. 264). In describing a book that has invigorated these types of reforms nationally, Redesigning Americas Community CollegesA Clearer Path to Student Success, Bailey (2017) wrote, What is needed is a comprehensive reform model that transforms the entire college to focus on student success. Quarles and Davis (2017) distinguished between two elements of student success: learning and progress toward a degree:

Measurements of progress toward a degree include grades, term-to-term retention, the number of credits earned, and whether the student earned a degree or certificate . . . student learning is the set of skills and understanding that a student gains, regardless of whether they receive a degree or pass a given class. These skills might be academic, social or non-cognitive. (p. 34)

They aptly noted that it is easier to measure the former than the latter. The Guided Pathways Framework is one of the most significant transformational models being implemented by community colleges across the country. This framework focuses on eliminating hurdles that impede student progress, with proven strategies to improve outcomes, such as creating highly organized programs (Bailey et al. 2015), improving clarity of information (Jaggers & Fletcher, 2014), and augmenting student support, advising practices, and holistic student supports (Achieving the Dream, n.d.). Another structural reform is the movement to eliminate remedial courses based on arguments that they present a barrier to college completion, disproportionately impact students of color, are costly, and do not conclusively support improved educational outcomes (Chen, 2016; U.S. Department of Education - Development 2017b; Mejia et al., 2016; Sanabria et al., 2020; Scott-Clayton et al. 2014). A third restructuring we see occurring is a concerted effort to increase in dual enrollment programming. Giving high school students early access to college-level coursework and credit has been found to have positive effects on students degree attainment (college, college access and enrollment, credit accumulation, completing high school, and general academic achievement (U.S. Department of Education 2017a p. 1).

Those who resist these significant restructuring efforts fear that a focus on momentum comes at the expense of student learning. We know that these structural changes have resulted in better processing of students: increased graduation rates (Center for Community College Student Engagement [CCCSE], 2020a), increased access to and completion of gateway courses for students of color (Mejia et al., 2020), and increased college-going rates among disproportionately impacted students (California Community Colleges Chancellors Office, 2021). However, these statistics do not tell us whether students feel welcomed and intellectually challenged in their classrooms, whether they are studying a curriculum that represents diverse voices and cultures, and whether their instructors are prepared and able to provide academic and nonacademic supports and interventions.

Advocates of these structural improvementsI put myself in this categorybelieve these efforts are grounded in a commitment to equity. Pillar 4 of the Guided Pathways Framework is Ensure Students are Learningusing specific practices to enrich and assess student learning (CCCSE, 2020b, p. 3). This pillar identifies practices such as scaled high-quality, program-relevant, applied learning experiences, intentional and sustained student engagement, and institution-wide commitment to equity-minded, asset-based teaching improvement (CCCSE, 2020b). In replacing pre-transfer levels of math and English with transfer-level sections with concurrent support, colleges are recommended to use college resources . . . to provide professional development in high-challenge, high support, equity-minded teaching practices, with a goal of achieving stronger, more consistent, and more equitable pass rates across sections (Acceleration Project).

Yet, community colleges must find ways to pursue and implement these system-level changes without neglecting individual-level changes in practice and a commitment to student learning. Challenges to accomplishing this are very real: bargaining units and contracts, legislative mandates that dictate priorities and timelines, spending categories that allow little flexibility, and incentive- and outcomes-based funding and student success metrics. Given these constraints, campus leaders (administrative and faculty) need to engage stakeholders in conversations to try approaches that challenge existing norms and modes of behavior.

We should all be asking these questions: How do we define student learning? How do we measure that it is occurring? To what degree is a commitment to student learning driving our actions? Colleges can ensure that evaluation of student learning is reflected in evaluations and that opportunities for advancement within the institution are dependent on demonstrated success in increasing student learning. Colleges can ensure that faculty professional development opportunities focus on student learning in a variety of ways, such as discipline-specific teaching techniques and academic developments in their area of study, online pedagogy and the use of technological tools, and the interconnections among basic needs (food, housing, mental and physical health services, Internet and technology access, legal services) and student learning. Finally, campuses can make student learning a determinative factor in funding decisions.

Doing all of this requires a different set of structural changes than those described earlier. It requires changes in the construction of load in ways that create space in faculty schedules. It requires funding and staffing models that ameliorate inequities between full- and part-time faculty. It requires understanding that faculty play a role in supporting the nonacademic needs of students. It requires that we actively commit to diversifying our faculty and invest in a more stable administrative pipeline. The progress that we have been able to make in implementing systemic changes to our practices is an important step. Now we need to complement that work with an equally fervent dedication to student learning.


Acceleration Project. Power moves to improve equity and completion. https://accelerationproject.org/Portals/0/Documents/PowerMoves_Checklist_Final.pdf

Achieving the Dream. Holistic student supports. https://www.achievingthedream.org/resources/initiatives/holistic-student-supports

Bailey, T. R. (2017). Guided pathways at community colleges: From theory to practice. Diversity and Democracy, 20(4). https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/guided-pathways-community-colleges-theory-practice.html

Bailey, T., Jaggars, S., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning Americas community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

California Community Colleges Chancellors Office. (2021). College and Career Access Pathways legislative report. https://www.cccco.edu/-/media/CCCCO-Website/Reports/CCCCO_CCAP_042721.pdf?la=en&hash=B6523897558DC749011A70D0E3194ADBBD0F99D8

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2020a). Building momentum: Using guided pathways to redesign the student experience. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education,

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2020b). Teaching and learning within a guided pathways framework: A playbook. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.

Chen, X. (2016). Remedial coursetaking at U.S. public 2- and 4-year institutions: Scope, experiences, and outcomes. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf

Jaggars, S. S., & Fletcher, J. (2014). Redesigning the student intake and information provision processes at a large comprehensive community college (CCRC Working Paper No. 72). Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mejia, M. C., Rodriguez, O., & Johnson, H. (2016). Preparing students for success in Californias Community Colleges. Public Policy Institute of California. https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/rs_archive/pubs/report/R_1116MMR.pdf

Mejia, M. C., Rodriguez, O., & Johnson, J. (2020). A new era of student access at Californias community colleges. Public Policy Institute of California. https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/a-new-era-of-student-access-at-californias-community-colleges-november-2020.pdf

Quarles, C. L., & Davis, M. (2017). Is learning in developmental math associated with community college outcomes? Community College Review, 45(1), 3351.

Sanabria, T., Penner, A., & Domina, T. (2020). Failing at remediation? College remedial coursetaking, failure and long-term student outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 61(4), 459484.

Scott-Clayton J., Crosta, P. M., & Belfield, C. R. (2014). Improving the targeting of treatment: Evidence from college remediation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis36(3), 371393.

Singer, D. J. (1961). The level-of-analysis problem in international relations. World Politics, 14(1), 7792.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse. (2017a). Transition to College intervention report: Dual Enrollment Programs. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/InterventionReports/wwc_dual_enrollment_022817.pdf

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Developmental Education (2017b). Challenges and Strategies for Reform. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/education-strategies.pdf

Van Noy, M., Trimble, M., Jenkins, D., Barnett, E., & Wachen, J. (2016). Guided pathways to careers: Four dimensions of structure in community college career-technical programs. Community College Review, 44(4), 263285.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 18, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23956, Date Accessed: 2/4/2022 10:37:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Sara Parker
    Napa Valley College
    E-mail Author
    SARA PARKER, Ph.D., currently serves as the assistant superintendent/vice president of Academic Affairs at Napa Valley College. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Political Science from the University of Delaware. She taught political science at Chabot Community College as a tenured faculty member prior to becoming an administrator. Dr. Parker has served as Chair of the American Political Science Association Status Committee on Community College Faculty in the Profession and was a Fulbright Scholar to Beijing in 2015. She lives in the Bay Area, CA with her husband and their three children.
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