Acton Institute Powerblog

Community Colleges Lower Standards And Cheat Students

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Higher education is in serious trouble. Plagued with the pressures of escalating costs and retention challenges, all sorts of perverse incentives are being introduced that are changing the quality of the education delivered. In an effort to save money, many college students make the choice to spend their first two years at a community college and then transfer to a traditional school to finish out their college degree. Instead of being driven by education quality, students are making decisions on the basis of skyrocketing costs, but at what cost to the student?

The trade-off is that community colleges of today have lower standards which may compromise the ability of academic success in the future when students transfer for their junior and senior year. For those intending on a 4-year degree, going to a community college for two years might make them worse off in the long run.

Inside Higher Ed highlights new research demonstrating that “community colleges set a low bar for students during their first year of enrollment,” especially in academic standards in literacy and mathematics, according to a new study from the National Center on Education and the Economy. Moreover, the study reveals “disturbingly low standards among community college instructors,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the center. “It’s clear that we’re cheating our students.”

For example, in mathematics, many community college career programs demand little or no use of mathematics and when they do require math, instructors are not challenging students to the competence levels presented in the textbooks. The researchers note, “judging by what is tested by community college teachers, they do not typically appear to be requiring students to apply mathematics or even to think mathematically when the text they have chosen for the courses uses math to explain relevant phenomena or presents mathematical skills as an important element in the skills required to do the work.”

In literacy courses there is no difference. The researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding.” In community colleges, according to the research, “most introductory college classes demand very little writing; when writing is required, instructors tend to have very low expectations for accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning, and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.”

This data should raise serious questions about how education should be funded in the future. It seems that publicly funded schools, and schools where students take out large federal loans, are driven by different incentives than private schools that receive either no direct or indirect funding from the federal government. If it’s true that “you get what you pay for” this may explain why the quality of education at these schools is so abysmal. A respect for human dignity and the appropriate role of government demands that we redesign how we fund education because cheap education seems to be doing nothing but cheapening students and sabotaging America’s workforce in the future.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • I am just finishing a 19 and 1/2 year career in teaching computer science and college math. The cheating of student by lowering standards begins before college, it is through out the school age years. It begins with the combination of litigious and threatening parents and school administrators who pressure teachers to unconditionally, at times, pass their students. It continues with the over reliance on technology so that many students who come to college lack arithmetic, let alone mathematical, skills.

    Then all of this is continued as the business model is being forced on colleges and so students are objectified as valued customers rather than students who need a well-rounded education. As a result, you will find that colleges spend a lower percentage of their money on academics and more and more on services and administrative costs. Thus, in many colleges, there are fewer and fewer tenured and other full-time faculty teaching courses as they are replaced by part-time adjuncts. Also, there is a greater push for distance learning and less emphasis on those subjects that do not immediately contribute to performing in the first jobs students land after college.

    And they are dealing with new students who, in every way possible, are not as well prepared for college as their predecessors. Many of the students who are not exceptional, who make up the vast majority of students today, have been taught to comply and conform. The Left’s criticism about many of the institutions of our society, including the church and education, begin to fit the facts on the ground in that these are institutions of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo. I have talked to several in public education who observe this criticism as a trend.

    • James Kirchner

      Curt, there is more than one business model that a college can follow. One is to treat the students as customers who “pay our salaries” (remember how profs would laugh when a student made that assertion?), but the other is to find out what business needs and to make sure students are capable of it, even if it’s painful for them to get there.

      I also wouldn’t go badmouthing adjunct profs, because many of them are better instructors than the full-timers. In one nationally known university system where I taught, I met PhD business professors who had never worked in business. Once I tried to swap war stories with a marketing professor (since I had worked in marketing), and he was completely uncomprehending. His entire contact with business had been a two-month internship in finance when he was in undergrad. I think anyone can see that a business exec who is adjunct teaching at night is far more likely to be a better instructor than a PhD with no hands-on experience. Nonetheless, the degree requirements for university instructors often guarantee that students get profs with higher-level degrees but inferior skills and subject matter knowledge.

      • James,
        I wasn’t badmouthing adjuncts. I was criticizing colleges for not putting their money where academics are. I am currently an adjunct myself. And there is a valid role adjuncts can play. The problem is in the percentage of adjuncts vs the percentage of tenured professors especially when schools keep increasing their administrative costs as well as other services and decrease the money they spend for long term full-time professors. There is a similar criticism that can be made about universities that put so much pressure on tenured professors to keep the grant money flowing at the expense of teaching.

        And, despite the business model, there are some industries that are ill-served by it. That means that a number of sources should foot the bill. As we more and more apply the business model, the students become objects because they become customers. And it is this practice of regarding the students as customers that has greatly contributed to the lowering of academic standards.

  • James Kirchner

    Setting a “low bar” for incoming freshmen is the whole point of community college — and I mean that positively! The mission of community colleges (at least the ones I have worked at) is to repair students damaged and neglected by high schools until they are acceptable for transfer to universities and career programs. The high schools routinely send over students who read at 8th- or even 3rd-grade level, and who need calculators to divide 15 by 5. The community colleges perform the Herculean task of bringing willing students up to an adult skill level.

    Community colleges offer easy, low-level classes, but students who have the capability can take murderously difficult ones on par with those offered at good universities. (At the community college where I teach now, the nursing graduates with their associate’s degrees routinely outscore the graduates of a somewhat prestigious university on their board exams.)

    They’re making awfully dangerous blanket generalizations about “community colleges”, because the assertions they’re making don’t appear to apply to the colleges in my metropolitan area.

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  • SWozniak

    I taught at a community college that offered five remedial or developmental English courses prior to ENG 101 and 102. There were two reading and two writing courses, followed by a transition course prior to the college level courses. The college claimed student results were poor and that few graduated. The solution was to make the curriculum for the transition course the curriculum for ENG 101 and to move the 101 curriculum to 102.

    The real problem was to allow students who read on the third grade level to take courses.

    But the problem for the real students, the bright ones who were at a CC for financial reasons, is that if the classes were not on the college level, how could they keep up when they transferred to four year schools?

    And, another problem is if a school does not teach college level classes, can it continue to call itself a college? What should it call itself?