The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America
reviewed by Robert R. Lawrence - 1990
Title: The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America
Author(s): Steven Brint, Jerome Karabel
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0195048164, Pages: 312, Year: 1989
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Brint and Karabel build an ambiguous argument stating that schools should at once develop skills, foster citizenship, and provide for socioeconomic upward mobility. The opening phrases of Chapter 1, From the earliest days of the Republic, express the historical and political approach of the book. Populist phrases from Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reagan are cited. Just as community colleges are often called the peoples colleges, so this book is written in defense of just those people, the working class and those aspiring to be upwardly mobile.
The invention and phenomenal growth of the community college took place through the efforts of powerful sponsors, the leaders of such universities as Chicago, Stanford, Michigan, and Berkeley, during the 1890s and the years prior to World War I. It was during this period that the American research university came into being using the German university as a model. The American high school, invented just a decade or two before, did not provide either the number of years or the academic rigor that these sponsors felt sufficient for students to enter the university that they envisioned. Thus the junior or community college would offer the necessary two years of general education while serving as a sifting and filtering mechanism. The students would mature and be exposed to an expanded, intensive curriculum, enabling them to enter the university of these mens dreams. These presidents saw the German universities admitting only the best of the gymnasium graduates. With only the best and the brightest, the German universities could produce outstanding scholars in all fields. The professors were free to lecture and to write and do research; they did not bother with the immature, with the problems of youth, or with sifting and filtering students. Many attempts to establish junior colleges were made; some of these institutions survived.
Brint and Karabel explain that whereas the early wishes of those university presidents were not realized, enough junior colleges did survive so that when the open-admissions and open-access movement was fully realized in the 1960s, the junior/community college model was in place. Now 30 to 50 percent of the college students in the United States are enrolled in community colleges.
Brint and Karabel state that it is unlikely that these students will receive a BA/BS degree, and that to the extent that they do not, they are disenfranchised. Most of these students will receive an AAS (Associate in Applied Science) degree in a so-called two-year technology program in nursing, data processing, commercial art, or culinary arts. The authors argue that the general education transfer program that leads to the AA/AS (Associate in Arts/Associate in Science)which allows the student to transfer to a BA/BS-granting institutionis the more appropriate track because it is the BA/BS degree that empowers, that provides upward mobility and the possibility of the students continuing in law, medical, or graduate school. In the extensive interviews the authors engaged in as part of the research for this book, they noted that the anecdotes always pointed to the success stories, to the students in the transfer programs who earn advanced degrees.
Brint and Karabel are academics, as are the community college personnel who point up these success stories. Academics bias and mind set perceive the BA/BS-plus-professional degree as the essence of being. Therefore, to the extent that community college students drop out, take the AAS, or take longer than two years to obtain a degree, they are cooled out or failed by the larger society. Many, perhaps most, community college students attend part-time, taking more than two years to earn a degree. There is a subtle sense throughout this book that the student who has the funds and the obvious ability to obtain a BA/BS is their model; the nontraditional student, typical of the open-access community college, is not clearly understood.
The authors perceive community college students as disorganized, poorly informed, and transient. They think that the students lack of comfort with academic, societal, and labor market issues has made the students vulnerable to external forces, which have provided the terminal vocational-technology AAS degree programs for these students.
By 1970, when community college enrollment was already rapidly increasing, the first indications of difficulty in the job market for BA/BS college graduates emerged. The net result was that community college students, anxious to obtain a job, settled for the AAS programs. These programs were supported by BA/BS institutions, business/industry, community college leadership (American Association of Junior and Community Colleges [AACJC]), and federal/state governments. Federal grants were extended to the open-access AA/AAS-degree institutions. The authors see this as a way of providing egalitarian education basic to a democracy while at the same time pleasing the BA/BS institutions, which as far back as 1900 saw the junior colleges as the quality-control agent that would select out those students who were not capable of the intensely intellectual exercises of a research university.
The authors are impressed by the energy and the dedication with which thousands of junior college teachers and administrators have tenaciously pursued the higher education of thousands of Americans. This effort, which continues . . . has yielded some impressive results: in opportunities provided, in horizons expanded, in academic deficiencies remedied, and in a not inconsiderable number of cases, ambitions heated up rather than cooled out. Further, the authors point out, many highly motivated and able individuals . . . [who] would never have entered, much less graduated from, an institution of higher education have gone on to be leaders in their communities/professions (p. 226).
The authors, at the same time, express reservations about the expansion of community college vocational education, finding that these programs frequently fail to deliver the economic results that they promise (p. 227). Yet Brint and Karabel remain ambiguous. While they, as academics at major research universities, express this concern for community college students, they also join with the original powerful sponsors at the beginning of this century who saw sifting and filtering as part of the role of the junior/community college:
A more democratic community college would not, it should be emphasized, be a place where the cooling-out function has been abolished. As long as American society generates more ambition than its economic structure can absorb, the community college will be actively involved in channeling the aspirations of students away from four-year colleges and universities. Yet this said, there is something deeply troubling, especially in a society that prides itself on its openness, about covertness of the cooling-out process as it now operates. (p. 231)
This is a penetrating study and well worth the time spent pondering with Brint and Karabel the ambiguous concern of a democratic society that generates more ambition than its economic structure can absorb (p. 231).