Erasure of Community Colleges from the Research Literature: Why Supporting Research by Community College Faculty can Increase the Quantity and Relevance of Educational Research
by Claire Wladis & Vilma Mesa - February 28, 2022
This commentary describes how supporting educational research conducted by community college faculty can improve both the quantity and relevance of educational research for community colleges, helping them to better fulfill their educational missions. It discusses some specific examples of successful research that originated from experiences on the ground at the community college, and how this benefited both the larger educational research discipline and the local community college. It also describes concrete approaches that could lead to an increase in this kind of educational research by community college faculty.
It has only been in the last 20 years that there has been sustained social scientific research in community colleges. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers college, Columbia University was an earlier pioneer, and the Achieving the Dream network brought the intricacies of bona fide research to institutional research offices of community colleges. The two commentaries this week come make apparent how our different positions within institutions greatly impact our view of problems and solutions. What administrators and college leaders think aboutby necessityis often quite different than what faculty and staff do. This does not mean that there cannot be ways to bridge and create possibilities for collaborative work, but it is often not easy to do so. While the two commentaries dont necessarily answer this conundrum, they reveal how some of these differences manifest in what we see, and how we respond to what we see. Each of these commentaries emphasize the nuances of institutional research at community colleges, one viewing metaphorically community colleges as a business, albeit a social one, incorporating the language and modes of thinking of the business model to the community college context. The other piece reveals the types of research questions that come from inside the classroom with direct interactions with students and makes an emphatic case for the inclusion of community college faculty and staff voices in what is studied and how. We need those who are trained at quantitatively assessing educational effectiveness in community colleges and we need those who are trained to capture the qualitative experience of community colleges students. Both are essential if we are to fully understand what it means to succeed in these institutions. And rather than being at odds, we should create avenues of inclusion for all of these voices.
Community colleges are home to more than half of all first-time freshmen in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012) and an essential component of any plan to improve equity in higher education or STEM fields because of their diversity (see, e.g., Ma & Baum, 2016). However, the representation of community colleges in education research, and in higher education in particular (about 8% of published research), is woefully inadequate compared with the proportion of students who attend them (Townsend et al., 2005; Wladis & Mesa, 2019). In addition, existing research on community colleges, although covering important topics, still misses critical perspectives that are particularly salient in this context (Wladis & Mesa, 2019).
We argue that supporting research conducted by community college faculty is one way to increase both the amount of research on the community college context and the relevance of that research to practitioners and students. Using one of our research experiences, we illustrate how community college faculty expertise can address gaps in the research literature. We then describe some local benefits to the college, and some challenges, and we recommend some ways to better support research by community college faculty.
As a longtime community college practitioner, Wladis frequently advised students during registration; in most cases, it was difficult for students to balance work and family responsibilities with their studies. Students were working very hard yet did not have enough time for their studies. This is common knowledge among community college practitioners that is also easily inferred from the literature: Demographic descriptions of community college students indicate that they work full time out of economic necessity and have significant family responsibilities, including eldercare and childcare (see, e.g., Ma & Baum, 2016). Despite this, higher education research on community college student outcomes rarely considers the impact of time (Conway et al., 2021; Wladis et al., 2018), attending instead to other factors, such as socioeconomic status or prior academic preparation (e.g., Fike & Fike, 2008), that are common in the mainstream research tradition.
Wladiss research group began researching students time capital, or the quantity and quality of time that students have for college.1 We found that student parents had significantly less time capital compared with nonparents, with the strongest differences when children were younger. Time capital also explained significant differences in college outcomes for parents versus nonparents (Conway et al., 2021; Wladis et al., 2018). Students who elected to enroll in online courses (before the COVID pandemic) had lower time capital, which explained in part their lower retention relative to students who took only face-to-face courses. Prior to this work, this difference in retention had often been attributed to the online environment itself (e.g., Bettinger et al., 2017). In addition, Black, Hispanic, and women students all had significantly less access to time as a resource for college than Asian, White, or men students (Conway et al., 2021; Wladis et al., 2018, 2021a, 2021b). These differences in time capital explained significant portions of the differences in outcomes among these groups (Conway et al., 2021; Wladis et al., 2018, 2021a, 2021b, 2021c). Intersectional analyses showed that Black women had about 25 hours per week less time for college (after accounting for paid and unpaid work) compared with Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Native Alaskan men; this was about half the time that these other groups reported having (Wladis et al., 2021a). These large inequities are never discussed in current research, making them invisible. Many of the groups with the least reported time available for college report spending significantly higher proportions of their already reduced free time to make up these gaps (Conway et al., 2021; Wladis et al., 2021b). Thus, in addition to explaining differences in academic outcomes, our research reveals a major hidden inequity: Some students (particularly those who are already underresourced) sacrifice much higher proportions of their discretionary time for college than others. Such inequities can contribute to negative psychological and physical health outcomes, which research has linked to overwork (Kuroda & Yamamoto, 2019; Yamada et al., 2014).
Research on time capital was a direct result of extensive practitioner experience in the community college context and was critical to expanding the research base on college progress. This research benefited the community college where it was conducted because it led the college to expand programs that connected student parents with resources for childcare and food access (Wladis et al., 2018); other related research also led to local changes when our research suggested that college policies might have negative unintended consequences for student access (Hachey et al., 2013; Wladis & Mesa, 2019; Wladis & Samuels, 2016). Moreover, our research brought financial benefits to the college on the order of $5 million, which covered all initial expenditures the college invested in our research.
Several policies and strategies facilitated this research at our community college. We had access to seed grants (on the order of $2,000 to $5,000) that covered research expenses such as data collection (data that were used as a lever for larger grants) and course buyouts, liberating the most important resource for us: time. Given that a typical teaching load for community college faculty is about 9 to 10 courses per year, the funding allowed us to teach one to two fewer classes per year to conduct the research and seek funding; external funding eventually covered more extensive reassigned time for research, resulting in a win-win situation: The college did not have to pay for additional time reassignment and received money in the form of indirect costs (about $1.4 million to the university, $1.2 million of which went directly to the community college).
There were many challenges along the way, often tied to biases about the role of community college faculty. We discuss two. The first challenge was the repeated opposition to using course buyouts to spend time on research (even when funded by external grants), because research was viewed as departing from the educational mission of community colleges or as taking resources away from the classroom (see, e.g., Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York [BMCC/CUNY], 2016). Neither of these concerns has been supported by research (Wladis & Mesa, 2019). In fact, there are three major benefits: first, research costs can be offset by savings in areas directly impacted by findings; second, when researchers apply for outside funding, there are large net financial (and prestige) gains; and third, because community college faculty-researchers conduct critical research on areas that have direct impact on practice, they are uniquely well-positioned to win research grants from federal agencies and foundations where this is a key criterion for funding (see BMCC/CUNY, 2016; Wladis & Mesa, 2019).
The second challenge involved biases about community colleges. Four-year/university faculty have negative biases about community colleges and their faculty (see, e.g., Twombly & Townsend, 2008), and researchers have often suggested that community college faculty are not qualified to conduct research. However, there is clear evidence that a significant number of community college faculty have both the necessary training and the interest to conduct education research (Wladis & Mesa, 2019), contradicting these perceptions. The biggest barrier for community college faculty conducting research is not lack of knowledge, but lack of time (e.g., BMCC/CUNY, 2016; Hardré, 2012). Perceptions that community college faculty time is better spent on teaching than research are rooted not only in biases about community college faculty ability, but also in misconceptions that research and teaching are unrelated activities that do not inform one another. But limiting educational research conducted by community college faculty by restricting their work to teaching alone hurts community college students because it restricts the kinds and amount of research that is done in the community college context; this contributes to larger inequities, not only in the research discipline but also in educational interventions that are based on research.
There are several ways to increase education research by community college faculty. First, funding agencies need to offer seed grants with streamlined applications targeted to community college faculty conducting educational research. Second, community colleges need to rethink the role of their faculty and facilitate reassigned time for educational research. Third, funding agencies and journal editors need to be on the alert for reviewer biases about community colleges and take concrete steps to counteract them. In fact, our research group has received reviews on federal grant applications and from research journals that comment negatively about our affiliation with a community college. Despite this, we have successfully published and received significant external funding, but these reviews speak to a larger cultural context that effectively silences the voices of community college faculty researchers and contributes to the erasure of community colleges from research. Making these changes would not only create a more equitable field for community college faculty to publish and obtain funding but also enrich and expand the education research community, contributing applications that are relevant beyond the community college context. These changes would help us to better serve the diverse group of students who attend community college and who overwhelmingly belong to groups that have been underserved by our educational systems.
In published research, we had to use time poverty instead of the anti-deficit time capital (see Wladis & Fay, 2021, for details). We prefer time capital because it assumes an asset framework; it measures a resource that all students have in varying quantities, whereas time poverty stresses that some students lack something that others have, a deficit conceptualization.
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