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Rethinking Cooling Out at Public Community Colleges: An Examination of Fiscal and Demographic Trends in Higher Education and the Rise of Statewide Articulation Agreements

by Gregory M. Anderson, Mariana Alfonso & Jeffrey C. Sun - 2006

Recent data indicate that a large proportion of students entering community colleges are identifying terminal certificate or occupational associate degrees instead of academic majors or transfer as their short-term goal. Despite this, throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, states established articulation agreements as policy instruments to enhance the transfer of students from public 2-year institutions to 4-year institutions. This conundrum raises an interesting two-part question: In the absence of a significant increase in the demand for transfer by community colleges entrants, why have states enacted these agreements, and what potential impacts may arise from these legislative trends? Applying the state relative autonomy theory, we contend that the rise of articulation agreements constitutes a new state strategy to cope with the stagnation of higher education appropriations, the spiraling costs of tuition, and an excess demand for affordable higher education.


The growth of public 2-year colleges has long been associated with the distinctly American impulse to democratize higher education. Anchoring their reputation as institutions dedicated to equalizing educational opportunities in American society is the transfer function, which furnishes a proportion of community college students an opportunity to continue toward a baccalaureate degree. These open-door policies have, however, generated fierce disagreement regarding the institutions’ overall purpose and their impact on reducing entrenched racial-ethnic, gender, and class inequalities. For example, in opposition to functionalist views of 2-year institutions as an expression of democratic progress and consumer demand for access to higher education, the concept of cooling out has been employed to highlight the tendency for community college students seeking transfer to universities to be tracked into terminal vocational-technical programs (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Clark, 1960; Karabel, 1972, 1974, 1986; Nasaw, 1979; Pincus, 1980; Shor, 1980; Zwerling, 1986).

Employing a traditional notion of cooling out to assess the dramatic increase in the number of statewide articulation agreements, which are intended to enhance the transfer of students from public 2-year to 4-year postsecondary institutions,i would likely rely on a cause-effect argument to explain their influence. If the effect on transfer is not immediately positive, then these agreements may simply operate as another example of how 2-year institutions reproduce inequality. With the exception of Burton Clark’s seminal essay (1960), the literature featuring cooling-out explanations of community colleges tends to provide little room for alternative interpretations capable of conceptualizing what Dougherty (1994) identified as the contradictory nature of 2-year institutions. According to Dougherty, the contradictory character of community colleges is grounded in the following reality: Two-year institutions are both reproducers of inequality and the promoters of social mobility. With Dougherty’s perspective in mind, we propose an alternative explanation to traditional notions of cooling out by exploring, on the one hand, the possibility that statewide articulation agreements will eventually enhance transfer rates if the predictions regarding an increased presence of middle-class students at community colleges come to fruition (Townsend, 2001). On the other hand, if this development does indeed occur, will the existence of statewide articulation agreements eventually undermine the primary mission of a significant proportion of 2-year institutions, which is to provide access to higher education for nontraditional or disadvantaged students (working class, minority, older, and part time) who tend to have no other pathways to college?

To examine these issues, this article adopts the following propositions. First, because community colleges serve as the primary gateway of access to higher education for disadvantaged students, the potential impact of statewide articulation agreements is significant given both the vocational character of these institutions and the extent to which opportunities for social mobility and degree attainment will be enhanced or thwarted in the future. Second, because higher education is now in the midst of a fiscal crisis, these agreements furnish state governments with the possibility to reduce costs while rhetorically maintaining a commitment to access without necessarily providing greater opportunity for disadvantaged students in the long term. Finally, because traditional explanations involving the origins and vocational evolution of community colleges do not appear theoretically well suited to account for the rise of statewide articulation agreements, the conceptual framework employed in the article will contribute to both the literature and research on 2-year institutions.

This article critiques and extends theoretical approaches used to understand the purposes and policies of community colleges by evaluating whether they can explain the marked increase in the number of articulation agreements from 1985 to 1995. In carefully examining the complex relationship between public higher education and state governments, our motivation is driven from the following observation. The earlier data chronicling the aspirations of students attending community colleges supported the contention that the majority of entrants originally placed in preparatory transfer tracks either dropped out or ended up in terminal vocational-technical programs (Brint & Karabel, 1989; Dougherty, 1994). However, by the 1990s, data provided by the Beginning Postsecondary Student Longitudinal Study of 1989 and 1995 (BPS89 and BPS95) indicate that the majority of students entering community colleges are identifying short-term tracks other than the traditional transfer route.ii When taking into consideration the growth of statewide articulation agreements in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this trend involving the enrollment choices of first-time community college entrants frames our overarching inquiry: Why, after several decades of relative inactivity, have state policy makers decided to establish comprehensive articulation agreements when there has not been a significant increase in the demand for transfer among the majority of students entering community colleges?

Considering that a large proportion of first-time community college students are now self-selecting certificate and occupational associate programs of study, and that states have moved aggressively throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s to establish articulation agreements, our research is guided by two broad questions: (1) What fiscal, political, and demographic forces might account for the increase in statewide articulation agreements promoting the institutionalization of the transfer function between public community colleges and 4-year postsecondary institutions? (2) What explanatory value, if any, does the seminal notion of cooling out possess when attempting to account for the potential impact of statewide articulation agreements?

To provide answers to these research questions, we first turn to the major theoretical contributions involving community colleges to gauge how well they explain the rise of statewide articulation agreements. After surveying these theoretical models, we develop a conceptual framework to account for the rapid growth of statewide articulation agreements over a 10-year period (1985-1995). Adopting Dougherty’s state relative autonomy approach, we hypothesize that the interests of state legislatures, governors, and policy makers may explain the rise of statewide articulation agreements. In particular, we argue that the interests of states in managing the competing demands of the electorate and different segments of the public at large, and in controlling the costs of higher education in relation to other state expenditures, represent the driving forces behind the growth of these agreements. To validate our assertions, we examine the fiscal and demographic trends shaping public higher education over a 20-year period. We conclude by discussing the future role of community colleges in an era of heightened fiscal uncertainty by raising the possibility that statewide articulation agreements may, over time, exacerbate (as opposed to ameliorate) social stratification and inequality in the absence of other state policies.


Several historical-conceptual frameworks have been developed to map out the often contested terrain underlying the origins and purposes of community colleges.


Proponents of a functionalist perspective tend to view community colleges as integral to efforts that enhance educational opportunities for underrepresented groups such as women, minorities, and members of the working class (Cohen & Brawer, 1996; Medsker, 1960; Monroe, 1972). Functionalists equate 2-year institutions with the expansion of democratic and consumer rights, predicated on the American public’s demand for greater access to higher education and the changing technocratic needs of the economy. Accordingly, functionalists contend that community colleges serve as both a supplier of vocational-technical skills and a site for transfer of those qualified students seeking baccalaureate degrees.


Neo-Marxist critics of community colleges focus on the likelihood for working-class, female, and minority students to be cooled out in terminal vocational-technical programs (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Karabel, 1972, 1974; Nasaw, 1979; Pincus, 1980; Shor, 1980; Zwerling, 1986). These critics posit that the vocational character of community colleges represents a business-dominated strategy to help manage the supply of labor and the demands of capital. According to this view, vocational education at community colleges, with the support of local and state governments, provides subsidized training of students for businesses. In addition, by cooling out the aspirations of community college entrants, a predominantly working-class and minority student body is eventually tracked into low-wage vocational-technical positions in the economy. Stated differently, Neo-Marxists argue that community colleges legitimate inequality by perpetuating the illusion of social mobility in capitalist societies, which is best illustrated by the existence of an ineffective transfer function at 2-year institutions (Bowles & Gintis; Pincus; Shor).


Institutionalists such as Brint and Karabel (1989) highlight the role of state universities, higher education commissions, and associations—such as the American Association for Community Colleges—when accounting for the growth of community colleges and their increased vocationalization. As growing numbers of students sought access to higher education in the second half of the 20th century, state universities and their officials had a vested interest in ensuring that the value of their baccalaureate degrees did not depreciate and that their institutions avoided becoming diploma mills. Consequently, Brint and Karabel concluded that state universities supported the growth of community colleges, and their vocational orientation, to deflect the demand for access to higher education in the direction of 2-year institutions.


In exploring further the role of community colleges, Dougherty (1994) contended that institutionalists do not fully account for the contradictory character of 2-year institutions. For Dougherty, the contradictory nature of community colleges is attributed to the multiple goals and the different influences and forces, both ideological and economic, that constrain and shape the evolution of these institutions. In researching this contradictory organization, Dougherty examined the relationship between higher education and local, state, and federal governments. Although Dougherty’s state relative autonomy theory is closest to an institutional approach, he posited that what is largely missing in Brint and Karabel’s (1989) account of the rise of 2-year institutions and the growth of vocational programs is a detailed analysis of the interests of federal, state, and local governments.iii In particular, his analysis highlighted the motives of local and state government officials interested in creating employment and job training opportunities while appealing to their immediate constituents (i.e., affected communities, lobbies, associations, and the electorate at large) and to the anticipated demands of business. In short, Dougherty posited that in managing competing interests in society, public officials’ intentions—so as to remain in power—are primarily responsible for the growth and vocationalization of community colleges.


Having summarized the major theories used to explain the origins and vocationalization of community colleges, we now assess the applicability of each approach to account for the growth of statewide articulation agreements in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Neo-Marxists maintain that the stratified system of American higher education and the vocational character of community colleges serve the interests of corporations by providing businesses with government-subsidized technical training. Nevertheless, the introduction of statewide articulation agreements appears to serve little purpose in furthering businesses’ interests. One could argue that, over the long term, the introduction of statewide articulation agreements could facilitate an expansion of the baccalaureate market in paraprofessional and technological fields. However, this possibility does not easily lend itself to the conclusion that corporations worked in concert to exert pressure on state governments to introduce articulation agreements. If anything, corporations have often displayed impatience with higher education. For instance, in the rapidly changing sector of information technology, corporations such as Microsoft were unwilling to wait for colleges to develop appropriate training programs. Instead, these corporations moved aggressively to meet their employment needs by creating independent certificate programs that do not require a 2-year curriculum or a 60-credit sequence of courses (Adelman, 1999).

This does not mean that business has no influence on state policy within the realm of higher education. On the contrary; government officials often seek to appeal to the interests of corporations as both providers of employment opportunities and a valuable source of revenue during costly election campaigns. Moreover, the recent introduction of performance-based funding, which has accompanied the “standards and accountability” movement, is a good example of how the rhetoric of business has been adopted by policy makers when attempting to reform higher education (Alexander, 2000; Burke, 1997; Burke & Associates, 2002). However, such policies appear to be more ideologically driven and representative of an indirect expression of business interests. Thus, when attempting to conceptualize the relationship between community colleges and statewide articulation agreements, it is our contention that we need to look at influences other than business.


Following the institutionalist perspective, it is plausible that 2-year institutions and their associations represent the driving forces behind the legislative push by state governments to better coordinate the transfer function. Improving the likelihood of transfer would undoubtedly enhance the status of 2-year institutions and potentially increase enrollments. Moreover, with the introduction of performance-based funding, it is foreseeable that community colleges could, over time, benefit from state funding that specifically targets improvements in transfer rates.

Despite these rationalizations, an institutionalist approach may not be well suited to explaining the increase in statewide articulation agreements. Brint and Karabel (1989) argued that community colleges have consistently served as a buffer to protect state universities from the onslaught of new students seeking a baccalaureate degree. Indeed, according to these authors, a primary motivation of state universities regarding their support for community colleges is to ensure that the value of the baccalaureate degree does not depreciate because of excess student demand. Given this premise, it is highly unlikely that 4-year institutions would actively support articulation agreements when the demand for access to higher education is presently at a premium. Assuming that statewide agreements are designed to enhance transfer rates, students entering community colleges who seek baccalaureate degrees may at best be delayed (as opposed to diverted) from gaining access to 4-year institutions. Moreover, if an underlying concern of state universities is to maintain the value of their baccalaureate degrees, then a delay of approximately 2 years in relation to the eventual influx of transfer students will not stop the increase in the amount of baccalaureate degrees being awarded. Thus, the application of an institutionalist model is limited when seeking to account for the growth of statewide articulation agreements.


Another possibility is that public pressure is responsible for the growth of articulation agreements, as dissatisfaction over the inability of 4-year institutions to meet the demand for baccalaureate degrees prompted state governments to act. From this perspective, there are two functionalist approaches that can be applied to understand the increase in statewide articulation agreements. The first approach focuses on the power of consumers of higher education to alter the orientation of community colleges. For example, some functionalists argue that the vocational character of community colleges emerged only after parents and students demanded that 2-year institutions align themselves with employment opportunities in technical fields.iv If we attempt to apply this functionalist approach to understand the growth of statewide articulation programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a contradiction emerges: Data from BPS89 and BPS95 do not demonstrate a significant increase in students seeking transfer upon entry to community colleges (see Table 1). Consequently, it is unlikely that demand for greater transferability by consumers of higher education is responsible for the increase in statewide articulation agreements.

The second functionalist approach relies on the democratic relationship between the electorate and state policy. State officials presumably view articulation agreements as a means to confirm their standing among the electorate by showcasing a commitment to enhancing access to higher education. Although this perspective has merit, the demand for access to higher education is simply one of several competing concerns that need to be managed by state officials seeking to stay in power; demands exist for affordable health care and prescription drugs, improvements in K-12 education, and redistributive rates of taxation. To coordinate these demands, functionalism assumes that the checks and balances associated with the American style of democracy compel government officials to act in the public’s interest. The difficulty with such a view of higher education policy formation is that it relies on an idealistic and one-dimensional conception of the relationship between state governments and the electorate. Omitted from analysis is the recognition that the interests of state governments often have less to do with promoting equality of opportunity than managing the demands of their constituencies and the fiscal, political, and ideological constraints that limit government power. Given the contested ideological and political environment in which state governments operate, policy formation is better understood as a process of strategic targeting in which the needs of various segments of the public, business community, media, associations, lobbies, and different levels of government are met in an effort to secure the necessary resource base and political support for state officials to remain in office.

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A final perspective to explain the increase in statewide articulation agreements assumes that, at the most basic level, the primary interests of state governments are to remain in power. Power is defined in terms of control over political and economic resources. Power is exercised through state legislatures and bureaucracies in charge of decision making regarding the collection and allocation of public funds, the initiating of policies, and the enactment of laws. In the context of state government, power is not absolute, but rather limited and moderated by competing priorities and interests that influence the nature of political participation and electoral outcomes. These constraints on power explain the term relative autonomy. Expressed differently, state governments are sites in which the demands of, and conflicts between, various economic, cultural, and ideological interest groups are managed by public officials and bureaucrats interested in maintaining or enhancing power.

Based on theories applied to community college research, we contend that only Dougherty’s state relative autonomy theory accounts for the rise in statewide articulation agreements as policy instruments. The approach lays principal claim to the importance of state governments, legislatures, and policy makers as self-interested and relatively autonomous entities that nevertheless remain constrained by fiscal, ideological, demographic, and political forces in society. Adopting Dougherty’s perspective, we assert that the growth of statewide articulation agreements extends states’ interests as they attempt to balance several competing governmental priorities in relation to shifts in state spending and the demands of an aging and predominantly White electorate, which is increasingly at odds with the changing demographic patterns characterizing the United States (Boggess & Ryan, 2002; Schrag, 1998; U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Accordingly, our approach is based primarily on a broad analysis of recent fiscal and demographic trends in the United States and their impact on state governments and public higher education.v


We have suggested that the implementation of articulation agreements may be best understood when applying a state relative autonomy perspective. The proliferation of these agreements can be viewed as an attempt by state governments to remain in power while balancing several competing priorities. In this section, we attempt to validate the assertion that the majority of statewide articulation agreements currently in effect were set in place between 1985 and 1995 to generate new cost-effective pathways to a baccalaureate degree for a segment of students initially enrolled at community colleges. In addition, we posit that this policy strategy is representative of the interests of state governments and public officials to maintain power and the support of their main constituencies by balancing competing budgetary demands. Thus, the issue we pose here is whether the introduction of statewide articulation agreements can be best viewed as an anticipatory response by state government to address the consequences of decisions initiated in the mid-1980s to increasingly divert funds from higher education for other state expenditures.

To begin our analysis, we emphasize that states’ interests in maintaining power and the support of the electorate and other constituencies cannot be separated from budgetary constraints that have been initiated at the federal level. Indeed, a shift in state spending priorities—which has resulted in a significant financial decline for public higher education relative to other state expenditures—can be traced to the growth of entitlements that have come to dominate federal spending (Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, 1996). In particular, “cost shifting from the federal government through unfunded mandates, such as Medicare, Medicaid, ADA, and OSHA, has destabilized state budgets” (Duderstadt, 2002, p. 169). As a consequence, state legislatures, governors, and policy makers have been confronted with difficult decisions as the intensely competitive nature of state funding has pitted essential social services against one another in a battle for resources.

To support this argument, we draw a link between the stagnation and decline of state appropriations for higher education as a share of total state expenditures, and the dramatic increase in statewide articulation agreements between 1985 and 1995. During this period, 23 states adopted or modified statewide articulation agreements (Townsend & Ignash, 2000). To put this state policy activity into perspective, the 23 agreements either introduced or modified during this 10-year interval represented 79% of all agreements in existence by 1995. This is significant because this period was also characterized by sharp decreases in state appropriations for higher education as a share of state expenditures.

As Figure 1 illustrates, higher education experienced a significant decline in state appropriations relative to overall state spending between 1979 and 2000 (Kane, Orszag, & Gunter, 2003). As Zusman (1999) further emphasized, “in 1992-93, for the first time since record keeping began in the late 1950s, overall state appropriations were lower than they had been two years earlier, despite a five-percent increase in public enrollments” (p. 110). Although state funding for higher education rebounded by the mid-1990s, when controlling for inflation, “total state appropriations in 1995-96 were 8 percent below appropriations a full five years earlier while public enrollments continued to rise at a rate of approximately 6 percent” (Zusman, p. 110).

To further support our argument, Figure 2 indicates that much of this decline in higher education appropriations has been accompanied by an important increase in state expenditures as a share of the gross state product (GSP), particularly between 1988 and 1995. That is, states were clearly expanding their budgets while dedicating an increasingly smaller share to higher education. Thus, it is apparent that there has been a shift in state priorities during this period of state budgetary increases, with higher education declining in importance as compared with other services, such as Medicaid and correctional services (Kane et al., 2003).

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To unpack the significance of this synergy between a precipitous decline in state support for higher education and the expansion of comprehensive articulation agreements, we turn to an examination of full-time equivalent (FTE) expenditures at public 2-year and 4-year institutions during the first half of the 1990s. Figure 3 illustrates the disparity in state FTE spending between public community colleges and universities between the 1990-1991 and 1995-1996 academic years while also demonstrating that during this period, the gap between 2- and 4-year current-fund expenditures per FTE continued to widen. This figure supports our proposition that a significant and growing difference in state spending by level of institution may have spurred state governments to establish comprehensive agreements.vi In doing so, states likely anticipated the inability of a growing proportion of qualified students to afford the rising costs of tuition at 4-year institutions.

Two reports (Ruppert, 1996, 2001) commissioned by the National Education Association based on in-depth surveys of state legislators interviewed in 1995 and 2001 support our contention that legislative priorities and strategies in the area of higher education continue to revolve around balancing multiple demands. Juggling these competing needs, state officials adopted policies that advanced their overall interests. Consistent with this assertion, a majority of legislators (71%) noted lower costs to both students and the state as the major reason that higher education enrollment needs in their states should be routed through community colleges for the first 2 years of college coursework (Ruppert, 2001). Not surprisingly, community colleges were praised for their willingness to directly appeal to legislators for support, a willingness that was believed to be nurtured because of the tendency for 2-year institutions to be located in nearly every legislative district in most states (Ruppert, 2001).

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Because state governments are primarily responsible for the decline in support for public higher education throughout the United States from 1985 to 1995, we contend that it is plausible that state officials and policy makers anticipated the need to instrumentally address this self-made trend in order to maintain the support of the majority of the electorate. Given legislators’ expressed views on the role of community colleges, the introduction of statewide articulation agreements provide a politically palatable strategy for two reasons. First, the policy serves to divert students seeking baccalaureate degrees into community colleges. Second, it reduces the state’s burden of FTE spending and offers the possibility of a seamless transfer after the first 2 years of college work. Thus, in an effort to help manage a somewhat inevitable fiscal crisis in public higher education—which is attributable in part to the state underfunding—statewide articulation agreements were adopted or modified during this period to generate new cost-effective pathways for states to educate baccalaureate-bound students.

To support this assertion, Figure 4 illustrates 1996-1997 state and local appropriations per FTE by institutional level for states with different types of articulation agreements as categorized by Ignash and Townsend (2001).vii As the findings indicate, statistically significant differences exist in appropriations per FTE between all public 2-year colleges and 4-year colleges and universities; states characterized as having fairly strong or strong articulation agreements showed the largest disparities.viii Indeed, this is consistent with what the state legislators reported: Community colleges are low-cost operators of higher education for states (Ruppert, 2001). Figure 5 provides another view of the fiscal crisis in public higher education based on expenditures per FTE for community colleges. The figure shows a significant reduction in expenditures per FTE at the 2-year level between the 1996-1997 and 1998-1999 academic years. In total, Figures 4 and 5 provide support for our assertion that states likely introduced articulation agreements as strategic policy instruments to cope with the effects of shifting state expenditures by ensuring that a more cost-effective pathway to a baccalaureate degree was set in place via the community college.

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Indeed, the introduction or modification of statewide articulation agreements may provide new cost-effective pathways to a baccalaureate degree while allowing states to divert funds from higher education into other state expenditures. At the same time, states are facing new challenges and tensions when determining their distribution of resources, which makes the role of statewide articulation agreements even more significant in terms of state policy. In the next section, we discuss the social contexts that account for the rise of statewide articulation agreements by examining the new demographic trends in higher education. In doing so, we argue that public policy makers are confronted with an increasingly difficult political and ideological environment that has prompted states to seek creative ways to manage a deepening fiscal crisis at a cost that hinders educational opportunities for some groups.


The growth of statewide articulation agreements symbolizes state governments’ fulfillment of a major obligation to postsecondary access without necessarily compelling most states to reverse a long-standing fiscal trend: the declining share of appropriations for higher education. In large part, these agreements represent a decision by public officials to maintain power and set the states’ future agendas by adopting a cost-effective alternative to addressing the problem of access to higher education. Now that state officials have been presented with several new budgetary and demographic challenges, the conditions are ripe for statewide articulation agreements to be instrumental in altering the paths of students into community colleges while state officials still maintain their relative power. To address this possibility, we turn to a discussion of states’ obligations and interests in the context of managing the changing demographics, issues of affordability and access to higher education, and the demands of the predominantly middle-class electorate.


State officials are most concerned with the dominant representation of the electorate. For state officials to increase power and manage constraints, they must address the needs of this crucial group. Over the last several decades, the age of the electorate has shifted while the racial-ethnic composition has remained consistent. Generally speaking, the electorate is characterized today as predominantly White, between 35 and 64 years old, college educated, and having an income base that is substantially higher than the average for Blacks and Hispanics (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).

With the exception of age, the characteristics of the electorate contrast with a growing segment of higher education students. The percentage of students from traditionally underserved and disadvantaged groups in higher education has increased; between 1980 and 1997, “groups experiencing the largest percentage increases in [higher education] enrollment . . . were women (44 percent), blacks (64 percent), and those 35 years old and over (139 percent)” (Boggess & Ryan, 2002, p. 1). Likewise, the actual enrollment numbers at public community colleges rose by 14% between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Department of Education, 2002b). During this period, the overall percentage of students (regardless of racial-ethnic background) enrolling in college immediately following high school has also steadily grown. For instance, in 1980, the percentage of high school completers who attended college the following semester was 49%, and by 2000, this figure increased to 63% (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a).

As these figures indicate, the demand for higher education is increasing. Nevertheless, the capacity to meet the demand for access to higher education will be challenged by the demographic changes taking place in the United States. By 2015, the projected proportion of immigrants is expected to constitute 12% of the American labor force (Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, 1996). Similarly, California is either on the verge of becoming, or has already become, the first large state in the nation in which non-Hispanic Whites are officially no longer a majority— with Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois soon to follow suit (Purdum, 2000). Despite their growth in population, Hispanics, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and low-income students are still seriously underrepresented in higher education, especially regarding baccalaureate attainment. To illustrate, in 1993-1994, African Americans and Hispanics received only 7% and 4%, respectively, of all baccalaureate degrees awarded (Zusman, 1999). Furthermore, when compared with others in their age group, young adults of all racial-ethnic backgrounds are 8 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree when their families fall into the bottom income bracket (Kane, 1999; Levine & Nidiffer, 1995; Zusman). Simply put, despite changing demographics, the disparities for opportunity and achievement continue to exist and are cause for concern in the future.


In addition to the demographic data, the barriers to access are accentuated by the surge in tuition charges and a concomitant decline in the availability of resources to help pay for these costs (Heller, 2001). The Commission on National Investment in Higher Education (1996) projects that if tuition in postsecondary institutions continues to increase at its current rate, it will nearly double by 2015. This is particularly disturbing because it is well established that increases in tuition costs have an adverse effect on enrollment at institutions of higher education (Rouse, 1994). Moreover, this effect is even more disturbing for students from immigrant, minority, and low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds because it represents an additional barrier to access, especially with respect to attaining a baccalaureate degree.

Given that family income disparities have consistently grown since the mid-1970s, the commission also warned that approximately half of the students in the United States seeking access to higher education will be unable to attend postsecondary institutions by 2015. When extrapolating from the enrollment growth that took place between 1976 and 1995, over 6 million students could be excluded from attending college if tuition at postsecondary institutions continues to increase at its current rate. The report also notes that if tuition increases remain constant at the current rate of inflation, higher education will experience a funding shortage of approximately $38 billion by year 2015 (Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, 1996; see also National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2004).

Initially, the tuition increases were a result of the states’ decision to shift spending priorities toward other discretionary items. That is, state officials exercised their relative autonomy and power in relation to their interests in appeasing the dominant sectors of the electorate by funding social programs that satisfied the demands of predominantly older, White middle-class voters. To complicate matters, through an unexpected turn of events, the economy plummeted in the new millennium while increases in higher education enrollment continue unabated. In an era of unprecedented demand for access to college in the United States, the long-term prospects of state higher education funding do not appear promising; 46 states faced significant budget gaps in the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2002). Ironically, with state support committed to other social programs that are also often strongly tied to the demands of the electorate, state budgets have been unable to contribute funding at the same per-student levels as the past (Kane, 1999). This trend jeopardizes the support of middle-class students and parents, who have long considered affordable access to higher education as a right, not a privilege (Burd, 2003).


Traditionally, governments in search of middle-class support have satisfied the interests of this vaunted group at the expense of poorly organized, less powerful, and disenfranchised members of society. For example, substantial increases in state spending on Medicaid and prescription drugs in the 1990s, which represented two major concerns of an aging electorate, cannot be separated from government cuts in welfare support (Kane et al., 2003; Schrag, 1998; Zusman, 1999). Similarly, ideological appeals to a predominantly White electorate regarding the need to “get tough on crime” were also accompanied by steady increases in government spending for correctional services in large states such as California and New York (Gangi, Schiraldi, & Ziedenberg, 1999; Schrag). As state appropriations continue to target programs that have particular appeal to the electorate, the cost burden shifts have resulted in the declining share of state appropriations for higher education. Accordingly, the adverse impact is most notable to both working- and middle-class students, who face greater difficulty in affording tuition at 4-year institutions (Rochin & Soberanis, 1992).

The recent flurry of legislative activity and debate at the federal level involving the rising costs of tuition is a good barometer of the extent to which both higher education institutions and state governments are being held accountable for keeping spiraling tuitions in check (Burd, 2003). Of course, in attending to the increasing tuition costs of higher education, state governments must tread a very fine line because a delicate balance is required when generating state budgets. For instance, an increase in K-12 funding may come at the expense of voters in need of Medicaid and prescription drugs; a reduction in welfare services can produce an increase in the number of uninsured children requiring health care; and a rise in state appropriations for correctional services can result in cuts for another large discretionary item in state budgets, such as public higher education (Gangi et al., 1999; Kane et al., 2003; Schrag, 1998; Zusman, 1999). Consequently, in a highly contested political and ideological environment, state governments find themselves in an unenviable position: They must find a way to enhance access to 4-year institutions without necessarily increasing state financial support for public higher education. The absence of such movement would constrain the power of state officials to maintain the support of their core middle-class constituents, who tend to place high value on the attainment of a baccalaureate degree.

With this challenge in mind, statewide articulation agreements may end up playing a pivotal role in the near future by allowing state governments to fiscally manage the intense and growing demand for access to higher education without losing the all-important support of the electorate. Indeed, if the statewide articulation agreements are effective in making transfer a more seamless process by avoiding significant loss of credit and unnecessary course duplication, community colleges could increasingly serve as a cost-effective means to control the massive flow of students seeking access to 4-year institutions in the future (Ehrenberg, 2000). In other words, public 2-year institutions could become what proponents of cooling out have long argued were not possible: facilitators of pathways to 4-year institutions, and eventually to baccalaureate degrees.

The likelihood of such a scenario becoming a reality is contingent on the degree of state intervention required to offset the tendency, consistently demonstrated by research, for 2-year institutions to depress baccalaureate aspirations. With the possible exception of middle-class students’ inability to gain access to 4-year institutions because of the growing costs of tuition and the limited enrollment capacity at universities, articulation agreements may take on an increasing importance to states regarding the improvement of transfer rates over time. In the past, few incentives existed for states to intervene to improve transfer rates. This inaction prompted several radical critics of 2-year institutions to argue that community colleges function primarily to justify class-based inequalities by promoting the myth of opportunity—that disadvantaged students will eventually acquire a baccalaureate degree (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Karabel, 1972, 1974; 1986; Nasaw, 1979; Pincus, 1980; Shor, 1980; Zwerling, 1986). Modifying a radical perspective of 2-year institutions to evaluate the relatively recent growth of articulation agreements, we posit that state support for such efforts presently remains more rhetorical than representative of a policy designed to improve transfer. For instance, we recognize that this perspective, when applied to the limited potential for transfer of minority and low-income community college students currently in occupational programs, still has merit. Nonetheless, we pose a different question and reframe the issue as follows: Given the fiscal and demographic trends outlined in this article, is it now feasible for states to employ articulation agreements to temporarily delay entry into baccalaureate programs for an increasing segment of community college students from middle-class backgrounds? If so, shifting the burden of access to community colleges as a low-cost mechanism for the first 2 years of collegiate education is representative of a significant state interest, one that was anticipated by state officials for some time because of the stagnation and decline in support for public higher education.

In summary, by 1995, a total of 29 statewide articulation agreements were in effect. States opted for this policy as a means to slowly address the long-term effects of diverting the share of state appropriations away from higher education in favor of the competing interests of the electorate. By doing so, public officials maintained or enhanced their degrees of power by creating articulation agreements that seemingly support accessibility to a baccalaureate degree while also providing a long-term option to escape the mounting pressure placed on states to provide affordable higher education. As tuition amounts have soared and state governments have been increasingly forced to juggle other financial priorities, community colleges have become a mechanism to provide higher education to growing numbers of qualified students at a lower cost per student. As a result, the middle class is likely to find community colleges a more viable avenue to complete the first 2 years of college if the possibility of transfer represents more than the ideological illusion of cooling out baccalaureate aspirations. Under these conditions, the significance of the statewide articulation agreements becomes a greater stake for state officials. Specifically, the expectation of a seamless transfer is heightened because the strength of a dissatisfied middle class could reduce the powers of state officials.


The states’ decisions to shift their priorities from higher education placed them in an uncompromising position when the economy plunged. Facing massive overall budget gaps, states were not in a position to counter steep rises in tuition costs. More important, the inability to stabilize tuition costs ran the risk of state governments alienating middle-class support. With commitments already made to other spending priorities, states were forced to find other alternatives to address the fiscal crisis in higher education. Rather than shifting a larger share of state appropriations to higher education, policy entrepreneurs have consistently placed the onus of accountability and responsibility for fiscal restraint and efficiency firmly on the shoulders of higher education institutions by introducing new mechanisms, such as performance-based funding.

In this section, we explain how states’ interests are furthered by diverting responsibility to community colleges to address the growing demand of education. In doing so, a preliminary assessment of long-term impacts of what we identify as the new cooling-out process is provided. More specifically, our analysis focuses on the possibility that statewide articulation agreements will evolve over time into a selective transferring process for students who wish to move from 2-year institutions to 4-year institutions. Furthermore, this analysis notes the erosion of efforts that foster good social policy in order to assist underrepresented students at community colleges and begins to frame issues regarding access to higher education for future research purposes.

Unlike traditional interpretations of community colleges as institutions serving the vocational needs of business through the cooling out of baccalaureate aspirations, we contend that the states’ interests in providing cost-effective postsecondary education could eventually alter the trajectory of a growing proportion of students entering 2-year colleges and help manage a long-standing fiscal crisis in higher education. Students priced out of attending 4-year institutions or unable to meet the ratcheted-up threshold standards (e.g., grade point average, rankings of high school graduates, standardized test scores) for entry into baccalaureate degree programs may be temporarily displaced or cooled out at community colleges, where the expenditures per FTE allow the state to better fiscally manage the demand for access to public higher education. Under these conditions, the process of cooling out could be reinterpreted as an initial— as opposed to terminal—placement of students into community colleges. Thus, for a qualified segment of the student body chasing their baccalaureate dream, potential of furnishing a seamless transfer process exists; however, several questions and concerns surround such a possibility.

First, which students would be targeted for transfer? Because African Americans and Hispanics constitute a substantial share of the nation’s low-income group, they enroll disproportionately in community colleges because tuition is substantially lower than at 4-year institutions.ix Given the current racial and SES composition of community college students, does the introduction of statewide articulation agreements enhance the chances of minority and working-class entrants of transferring to 4-year institutions? Or, as the extant research suggests (Lee & Frank, 1990; Surette, 2001; Velez, 1985), will the cumulative disadvantages associated with race and low SES continue to depress the likelihood of transfer to a 4-year institution regardless of the existence of a statewide articulation agreement? Conversely, if the observable characteristics most often correlated with transfer (i.e., high SES, high school diploma rather than GED) remain the best predictors of baccalaureate degree attainment, will students most likely to take advantage of transfer opportunities increasingly come from middle-class backgrounds?

This last line of inquiry is particularly troubling if research on recent enrollment trends at 2-year institutions is accurate with respect to the possibility of a “middle-class takeover” of community colleges (Townsend, 1999, 2001). The growth of high school dual enrollment programs, reverse transfers, 2- and 4-year concurrent or simultaneous enrollments, and summer sessions could challenge the open-door mission of community colleges in the near future because these programs tend to benefit well-informed and better prepared middle-class students (Townsend, 2001; Winter & Harris, 1998). Moreover, with the rise of state-mandated performance funding indicators in an era of heightened concerns over efficiency and accountability, community colleges might be compelled to turn away less prepared students in an effort to enhance retention, graduation, and transfer rates (Alexander, 2000; Burke, 1997; Burke & Associates, 2002).

The literature on community colleges, whether effusively supportive or highly critical of 2-year institutions, has overwhelmingly reinforced the notion that these institutions provide access to higher education for traditionally underrepresented students. Indeed, despite the many disagreements within the social sciences over student outcomes, it has been taken for granted that community colleges are associated with universal access. This assumption may need to be challenged in the future if the new fiscal crisis, coupled with the adoption of statewide articulation agreements, provides better prepared middle-class students with an affordable vehicle to gain access to higher education. In particular, the combination of four factors— massive state budget gaps, increased tuition costs, the introduction of performance-based funding, and the projections involving the unmet demand for access to higher education in the next decade—may run counter to common-sense notions of community colleges as open-door institutions for nontraditional students. Instead, community colleges’ desire to provide educational opportunity for the disadvantaged may once again be, to paraphrase Dougherty (1994), undercut in the interests of saving state money. Under these conditions, the cooling out of students may increasingly occur via a tiered institutional tracking process within and between community colleges, in which a more effective transfer mechanism disproportionately benefits students from middle-class backgrounds. Not surprisingly, unlike the current majority of first-time entrants at community colleges, these students will not likely declare a vocational degree as their short-term goal, but will seek eventual gateways to 4-year colleges.

This scenario is buttressed by the recent introduction of performance-based funding tied to specific outcomes, which over time may result in a tiering effect as the better performing community colleges distinguish themselves from less successful 2-year institutions as effective vehicles for transfer. Moreover, once this occurs, 2-year institutions and their representative associations may have a vested interest in supporting statewide articulation because it allows the entire community college to redivide and expand its markets while enhancing its status as a partner with universities traditionally responsible for the production of baccalaureate degrees. Seen in this light, the future interests of state governments and public community colleges appear aligned.

The cooling-out process is being manifested in a new form and shaped by states’ interests and concerns surrounding government spending, standards and accountability, changing demographics, and the demands of the electorate. Indeed, this new concept is distinguishable from perspectives of Neo-Marxists, who view community colleges primarily as serving the interests of business. Although the end result might be the continuation of inequality based primarily on race and SES, the interests driving this cooling-out process at community colleges are not directly those of business per se, but instead appear to be representative of states’ need to address an ongoing and deepening fiscal crisis while maintaining the base of power and electoral support. To be certain, a Neo-Marxist analysis, which focuses on the complex role of higher education policy in relation to promoting the ideology of equal educational opportunity, can indeed be applied to understand the rise of statewide articulation agreements. But in the context of community colleges, such an approach would have to augment and refine more traditional Marxist notions of the correspondence between 2-year institutions and the stratification of the working class by also acknowledging the potential impact of an influx of middle-class students. Undeniably, that cooling out of working-class and minority students may be continuing in a new form is a significant concern. Thus, Neo-Marxists’ approaches must highlight how the process of tracking has changed over time, thereby generating new contradictions at community colleges. Without this kind of analysis, radical interpretations of community colleges tend to mechanistically reinforce the view that 2-year institutions reproduce inequality and stratification through the promotion of a false promise of transfer. But what if transfer rates eventually rise as a result of introduction of articulation agreements? How will Neo-Marxist approaches maintain a critical emphasis on inequality in their analyses that does not inadvertently strengthen more functionalist interpretations of community colleges as democratic institutions of access?

In our view, functionalist explanations cannot satisfactorily account for what Dougherty (1994) defined as the contradictory character of 2-year institutions. This character is based on the unlikely marriage between community colleges’ open-door policies and the tendency to reproduce class and racial-ethnic inequalities. Moreover, with respect to the rise of statewide articulation agreements, the contradictions surrounding community colleges will likely intensify with the increased demands placed on 2-year institutions to once again serve multiple goals and competing agendas. On the one hand, the new cooling-out process starts with predominantly low-SES and minority students increasingly self-selecting vocational programs upon entry to community colleges, which place these students at a distinct disadvantage in terms of the likelihood of transfer to 4-year institutions. On the other hand, as a result of rising admission standards and tuition costs at 4-year colleges, middle-class students are beginning to view community colleges as a viable alternative, and these students are most likely to benefit from statewide articulation agreements. Given these paradoxical developments, straightforward and simplistic functionalist interpretations of the democratic evolution of community colleges cannot sufficiently account for the interests of state governments and the potential contradictory effects of statewide articulation agreements on community colleges and their diverse student bodies.


According to BPS89 and BPS95, a substantial proportion of first-time community college students declared certificate and occupational associate programs of study as their short-term goals, as opposed to academic routes toward the baccalaureate. Between 1985 and 1995, a significant number of statewide articulation agreements were either modified or introduced. Interestingly, these policy instruments symbolize efforts to enhance transfer even though a significant number of entrants do not appear strongly motivated to, or well situated for, transfer. When data and policies are not aligned, the reasons can often be found through an examination of ideology and political interests. We posit that the importance of statewide articulation agreements is increasing as state governments attempt to manage competing economic and social constraints without allocating additional funds to higher education. Equally important, these state policies have generated a lower cost alternative for the first 2 years of college for both students and states.

Although preliminary findings indicate that these agreements do not significantly increase the probability of transfer,x it is difficult to definitively measure the impact of statewide articulation agreements without more current data. Notwithstanding this limitation, this article demonstrates the importance of modifying the theoretical models that have informed most of the research on 2-year institutions when considering the long-term impact of statewide articulation agreements. As Townsend (2001) and others have indicated, the potential for a middle-class takeover of community colleges looms large given the fiscal constraints faced by state governments and the trends in the demand for access to higher education. The possibility of a middle-class influx calls into question whether a new cooling-out pattern at community colleges will develop in concert with the significant presence of statewide articulation agreements because these policies may, in the long run, exacerbate the baccalaureate attainment gap most often associated with students from racial, immigrant, and low-SES backgrounds.

Of the conceptual models presented in this article, only Dougherty’s (1994) state relative autonomy theory provides a lens wide enough to capture the continued contradictory evolution of community colleges. The state relative autonomy theory accounts for the role of state legislators and other government officials who clearly have an interest in promoting the value of these policy instruments as equalizers of educational opportunity. In addition, with these policies in place, state officials could more easily justify redistribution of resources to maintain their base of power and electoral support. Indeed, the role of the state cannot be emphasized enough. Faced with tough choices involving cutbacks in funding and the delivery of essential social services, state officials and policy makers are all too cognizant of which sectors in society are more or less likely to organize and rally against unpopular decisions. The political consequences of either deterring transfer—or, in some cases, even excluding access to community colleges for disadvantaged students—is far less risky a proposition for state officials and governments. Conversely, the interests of these state officials are more likely to conform to the strongly held belief among the voting middle class that affordable baccalaureate education is a democratic right, not a privilege, in the United States.

What is striking about the potential impact of statewide articulation agreements is that community colleges may once again be serving deeply contradictory functions: as a promoter of social mobility and eventual baccalaureate attainment on one hand, and a reproducer of inequality and social stratification for working-class and minority entrants on the other. We see this observation as an essential correction to most of the approaches employed to analyze community colleges, one that we hope will promote a rethinking of the notion of cooling out and its application to public 2-year institutions in the 21st century.


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i Articulation can be defined as “the movement of students—or, more precisely, the students’ academic credits—from one point to another” (Cohen & Brawer, 1996, p. 205) or as the “what” process to student transfers (Ignash & Townsend, 2001). Between 1985 and 1995, 23 states either introduced or modified existing articulation agreements (Townsend & Ignash, 2000). It is important to note that some articulation agreements also encompass far more than 2-year to 4-year transfers and include, for example, what Ignash and Townsend (2001) identified as “reverse” transfers. However, for the purposes of this article, we concentrate only on “vertical” transfers.

ii It is essential to note that these data sets indicate that most community college students, in the long term, aspire to complete at least a baccalaureate degree. What is significant, however, is the extent to which students from the 1980s onward have maintained emphasis, in the short term, toward obtaining a certificate or occupational associate degree. Although this distinction between goals and aspirations could reflect a pragmatic approach on behalf of the students—insofar as they are “testing” higher education to determine whether it serves their needs of occupational advancement and whether they are suited for further study—we nevertheless highlight that community college entrants have not demonstrated a marked increase in claiming transfer as their immediate goal.

iii Brint and Karabel (1989) also discussed in detail the role of state government and employed Massachusetts as a case study to examine the rise of vocational education and community colleges. However, the state as a critical player in shaping the origins and evolution of 2-year colleges is not a central component of their institutional perspective, and in our view this limits the applicability of their perspective to account for the emergence of articulation agreements.

iv This viewpoint, however, has not been well supported by data because the majority of community college entrants sought academic transfer throughout the better part of the 20th century (Brint & Karabel, 1989; Dougherty, 1994).

v It should be noted that Dougherty included local, state, and federal governments and their official representatives, in addition to the role of local boards and superintendents, when examining the origins and the vocational evolution of community colleges. However, our use of Dougherty’s theory to account for the rise of articulation agreements focuses on public support for higher education via the annual state budgets. In doing so, we are cognizant that in some states, local sources of appropriation play a significant role in financing public community colleges.

vi To overcome the stagnation of state funding for higher education, colleges and universities have been compelled to increase tuition throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, during this period, tuition at public universities increased by 115%, while tuition at community colleges rose by 228% (Johnstone, 1999). Although community colleges have experienced the largest increases in tuition of any postsecondary institutional type, they nevertheless remain affordable compared with 4-year institutions.

vii 7 We should note that Ignash and Townsend (2001) classified the states using six categories of articulation agreements: (1) strong, (2) fairly strong, (3) moderate, (4) fairly weak, (5) weak, and (6) no agreement. The first two correspond to our categorization fairly strong, strong, and the last three to our categorizationfairly weak, weak, or no agreement. Also of note is that IPEDS does not allow us to precisely separate appropriations to professional, graduate, and hospital schools, and as a consequence, the estimates for 4-year appropriations per FTE could overestimate the difference in appropriations between 2-year and 4-year colleges.

viii It should be noted that the differences across types of articulation agreements are not statistically significant.

ix For example, BPS89 indicates that minorities constitute 25% of all students enrolled at community colleges, while minorities represent only 18% of enrollments at public 4-year colleges or universities.

x In a related study, Anderson, Sun, and Alfonso (2006) found that students who enroll in states with statewide articulation agreements do not experience an increased probability of transferring. This means that they have the same statistical probability of transferring from a community college to any 4-year college or university as a student who enrolls in a state in which this type of agreement is nonexistent, after holding constant the students’ demographic, educational, SES, and enrollment characteristics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 3, 2006, p. 422-451
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12331, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:54:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Gregory Anderson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    GREGORY M. ANDERSON is an assistant professor in the Programs in Higher and Postsecondary Education and the associate director of the Center for African Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Andersonís research interests include issues of race, equity, access, compensatory reform, and higher education policy from a comparative perspective, with emphases on South Africa and the United States.
  • Mariana Alfonso
    Brown University
    MARIANA ALFONSO is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Public Policy at Brown University. Her research interest is in the economics of higher education. She focuses on issues of higher education access and attainment by minority and low-income students, with particular emphasis on the role played by community colleges.
  • Jeffrey Sun
    University of North Dakota and Teachers College, Columbia University
    JEFFREY C. SUN is an assistant professor of educational leadership and an affiliate professor of law at the University of North Dakota. Sun researches and writes in the area of higher education law and policy.
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