Skip to content Skip to navigation

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (review)

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

So then, should community colleges be praised for the important role they play in expanding opportunity for low-income, minority, and nontraditional-aged students? Or do they deserve the criticism they receive for diverting students from their ultimate goal-a four-year degree?


The posting below is a review by Nathan Daun-Barnett of the book: Defending the Community College Equity Agenda, by edited by Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Moriset The review is from the April-June 2007, Planning for Higher Education, 35(3): 83-85. The Society for College and University Planning - Copyright © 1998-2007. Reprinted with permission. Planning for Higher Education book reviews appear at: (


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: How to Prepare New Courses While Keeping Your Sanity

Tomorrow's Academia

------------------------------------ 1,271 words ----------------------------------

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (review)

Reviewed by Nathan Daun-Barnett

Community colleges occupy a precarious position in American higher education, tracing their roots variously to junior colleges affiliated with four-year institutions, high schools as extensions of community-based educational offerings, and independent institutions developed specifically to expand educational opportunities to a broader swath of the American public. Community colleges are both revered as gateways to college access for students who might not otherwise consider college and criticized as agents of social reproduction, doing little more than maintaining individuals' positions in the broader economic structure. So then, should community colleges be praised for the important role they play in expanding opportunity for low-income, minority, and nontraditional-aged students? Or do they deserve the criticism they receive for diverting students from their ultimate goal-a four-year degree?

Bailey and Moriset attempt to address these questions in their edited volume, Defending the Community College Equity Agenda. As the title suggests, the authors take a clear position, believing both that community colleges play a critical role in the larger equity agenda of American higher education and that attacks on community colleges are either unfounded or greatly exaggerated. All of the authors included in this volume represent or are affiliated with the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University. As such, they are uniquely qualified to examine the evolving role of community colleges. They also operate with a shared perspective regarding the important roles community colleges play in American higher education. For both reasons, the authors are well suited to the task of defending the community college equity agenda.

The book is both relevant to current discussions regarding the role of the community college and timely given declining state support for higher education and the growing cost of tuition. Bailey and Moriset begin appropriately with the multiple and changing roles assigned to community colleges, which can be simplified to the dichotomy between vocational training and four-year transfer preparation. The argument they propose-that vocational training is becoming the priority at the expense of the four-year transfer mission-is not new (the CCRC has made this case in prior work), but it sets an important foundation for the remainder of the book.

Defending the Community College Equity Agenda is based on a six-state, 15-institution study conducted by the CCRC. This National Field Study (as described by the authors) involved in-depth interviews, focus groups, and field observations at each of the 15 campuses between 2000 and 2002. Other than a single chapter on competition from for-profit institutions, the rest of the essays are based on the study data. (The study is described thoroughly in chapter 1.) In many ways, readers might think of this compilation as an extension of two contemporary works that apply directly to the topics at hand.

First, Bailey and Moriset's work may be seen as an extension of Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin's (2005) Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Bowen and his colleagues describe equity as the broad extension of educational opportunity to all qualified and capable students and suggest that the dichotomy with excellence is largely overstated. However, they recognize equally that American higher education has paid a great deal more attention to excellence than it has to equity. Moriset's explication of the multiple missions framework within which community colleges operate exhibits much of the same tension. Community colleges remain committed to the transfer function, moving largely low-income and non-majority students into baccalaureate education, yet are increasingly called to meet short-term vocational training and workforce demands. This becomes a question of excellence, as liberal training for transfer students is perceived to be of greater value than vocational training.

Second, faculty, students, and community college personnel might appropriately view Defending the Community College Equity Agenda as an important extension of Cohen and Brawer's (2002) seminal work, The American Community College, now in its fourth edition. Cohen and Brawer provide a thorough treatment of the evolution of community colleges and the broad elements of governance, finance, instruction, and student services, along with a national perspective that is necessarily broad and in some ways fairly general. Bailey and Moriset's work identifies the most pressing contemporary issues facing community colleges, particularly from a policy perspective (where debates over equity increasingly occur) and takes the reader more deeply into the nuances and complexities of each issue. Included in Bailey and Moriset's work are thorough treatments of the accountability movement, the growth of for-profit institutions, online virtual education, remediation and noncredit course alternatives, guidance counseling, and the growth of dual enrollment strategies between high schools and colleges. Each chapter is thorough and insightful, and I would strongly recommend this volume to anyone who cares about the role community colleges play and the degree to which they succeed in providing equitable educational opportunities.

However, because Bailey and Moriset have taken such care in addressing the most pressing issues facing community colleges today, one might naturally ask whether all of the topics discussed reflect the equity mission of community colleges. I would argue that this book may be as much a defense of the community college agenda as it is of any specific equity agenda, which is in part a matter of definition. Bailey and Moriset define equity as involving three parts: "equity in college preparation, access to college, and success in reaching college goals" (p. 2). This definition reflects the current conversations regarding access (perhaps with additional emphasis on the cost of college), but neglects a fact frequently repeated throughout the book-the vast majority of students identify their goal as attaining a bachelor's degree, an important point that suggests the transfer function should be the primary mission of community colleges in the context of equity.

Bailey and Moriset, along with the various chapter authors, seem to position this work as though the community college by its very nature is an agent for equity and, as such, any challenge the community college faces is necessarily a threat to equity. From this perspective, noncredit certificate programs, online education, and for-profit competitors (which advocate market solutions and vocational credentialing) are as important to equity as remedial education, guidance, and dual enrollment (all relevant to the transfer function of community colleges). It would be bold for the authors to suggest that community colleges drop vocational and certificate programs to focus on transferring all students to four-year institutions. Bailey and Moriset, however, do suggest that noncredit programs may conflict with an equity mission because they do not align well with credit programs that may lead to further education. For those who believe in the equitable distribution of educational opportunity, the matter of defining what constitutes equity is critical and unfortunately remains a moving target.

One can argue effectively that students are better off after each course they take or each degree they earn. From this perspective, defending the community college is defending the equity agenda. However, if equity is defined in part by student goals and the vast majority desire at least a bachelor's degree, then any function that inhibits student progress to a four-year degree provides a barrier to equity. As a profession we must decide how committed we are to the goal of equity and be clear at what level we believe equity can be achieved. Community colleges play a critical role in American higher education that Bailey and Moriset are right to defend. However, as institutional planners, policy makers, and college executives, we must be equally prepared to question what we do and how we do it. If equity is really our objective, then we should examine every aspect of what we do and focus our energy and resources on only those functions that help students achieve their goals.


Bowen, W. G., M. A. Kurzweil, and E. M. Tobin. 2005. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Cohen, A. M., and F. B. Brawer. 2002. The American Community College. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.