The Invisible Institution

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Community colleges have been called many things-"junior," "second chance," "sub-baccalaureate," and one of my personal favorites: places of "continued dependency, unrealistic aspirations, and wasted general education." That last one dates back to 1968, in the heat of their growth period (the author is W.B. Devall, writing in Education Record).

Despite all the disparaging remarks, I have a strong sense that many community college leaders are willing to be called just about anything, as long as they're "not called late for dinner." And this year, at least, they're at the table, and standing to enjoy a nice deal in the form of the American Graduation Initiative (part of legislation pending in the Senate).

But this period of sunshine provides only a modicum of comfort, given the longstanding backdrop of invisibility punctuated by insults. In 2005, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews wrote a confessional column called "Why I Ignore Community Colleges." A Brookings Institution report released today reveals that Matthews was (and is) far from unique among his colleagues.

Brookings examined mainstream news coverage since 2007 and discovered that only about 1% of national coverage (appearing on TV, newspapers, news websites, and radio-and not including blogs) is devoted to education. That's education of any flavor.

Zoom in on coverage of community colleges and the picture gets even worse. Of all education reporting - of that 1%-- only 2.9% is devoted to community colleges. Public two-year colleges enroll 60% as many students as 4-year colleges and universities, but receive only one-tenth the news coverage. As the Brookings authors conclude, "From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist."

Invisibility is both a cause and a symptom of community colleges' low-status in higher education. The oft-unmentioned "snob factor" contributes to reporters' sense that their readers neither care, nor need to know, much about this sector. Children of journalists are unlikely to attend community colleges, and we all know that parents pay more attention to whatever their kids are doing. The same problem applies to politicians-it's a veritable miracle that President Obama is speaking with pride about institutions of postsecondary education where he's unlikely to send his own children.

Leaving community colleges out of the news means substantially skewing the American image of higher education. Stories about the critical links between the economy and education are missed-after all, it's community colleges who consistently watch enrollment rise along with unemployment. Kids and parents hear repeatedly about competitive admissions and rising tuition, expensive dorms and climbing gyms, even though these are the reality for less than half of all undergraduates. And we hear about, and from, presidents of 4-year colleges and universities, far more often than we hear about their hard-working peers running community colleges.

I think that sadly enough many at community colleges have gotten used to stereotypical representations of those schools-the lack of resistance to NBC's comedy Community may be one indication. But as William DeGenaro points out, it hasn't always been this way. In the 1920s and 1930s, community colleges were praised as essential to public education, getting ink in publications like the New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reader's Digest. Enrollment was climbing rapidly, just as it is now, and the media took notice. In fact, DeGenaro's research reveals that "the print media served as a booster, implying that the colleges resulted from common sense." That "rhetoric of inevitability" stands in sharp contrast to today's stance of invisibility. By ignoring an entire sector of higher education, the media helps to de-legitimate it. Simply put, reporters need to catch up--the President, together with many federal and state leaders, philanthropists, and citizens, sees the American community college as essential to the nation's future. What are journalists waiting for?