Mission Drift: Toward the Junior College Model in California

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.

By Greg Keech

What is the difference between a community college and a junior college? This is a distinction that the general public may not be familiar with, and even within the community college arena, the definitions may be open to discussion. This piece examines the two typologies to spark dialog about whether California's community colleges are heading in the right direction. I think it is fair to say that a college's mission statement is the place in which the distinction is delineated. It is there that the institution expresses the focus of its efforts.

Junior Colleges

The traditional junior college is a two-year school. The model has been around for some time. But recently an increased focus on degrees and transfer, i.e."completions," has renewed the use of the term and its ramifications. This new interest in the junior college model is connected to the "Student Success" movement and the Student Success Act of 2012 here in California. The guiding principle is that a 4-year degree is the most valuable achievement public education can provide its population. A Bachelors degree is indisputably a ticket to higher salaries and the route tobuildsadvanced degrees and specialization.

One of the most serious challenges facing the 2-year-and-transfer model, however, is that 85-90% of students entering California's community colleges cannot do freshman composition and mathematics. If the goal of a college is to prepare students for degrees and transfer, and funding is linked to this goal, colleges may become more selective to garner maximum funding. What will happen to those many students who are less likely to achieve this goal in a few years? Will their access be limited?


ESL is often forgotten in this discussion, although many colleges enjoy very high percentages of immigrants and multilingual students. Then a familiar pattern emerges. Noncredit ESL is seen as a prelude to credit ESL. This can be seen in an accountability measure introduced during the implementation phase of SB 361 (Jack Scott) in 2006, the Career Development and College Preparation (CDPC) certificate.

Credit ESL is seen (more reasonably, in my mind) as a preparation for college-level work in other disciplines, and most credit ESL students have already chosen an academic goal. Neither mode, however, is officially countenanced as an end unto itself. Simply learning the language, or learning the language for a variety of purposes other than those funded for measurable statistics, these are not really in the picture. It is not easy to measure success. Traditional metrics are just that: traditional- measured with metrics that are familiar and easy to record within our existing databases? Is this a path to performance based funding which would exclude non-traditional students?

Community Colleges

Most people's definition of a community college is an institution that is broad-based and serves its local population in a variety of ways. It embraces the value of degrees and transfer, but it includes students with other goals in mind - criticized as "trying to be all things to all people." Could it be equally well be characterized as trying to serve as many people as possible in a climate of continual funding cuts?

A community college goes beyond degrees and transfer. It includes myriad Career and Technical Education (CTE) certificates, which may or may not fit into the junior college model. It also includes providing classes to adults who may take only one or two classes - just enough to move up at work or improve their small business. These students don't provide extensive completion metrics, but value this help from their local community college.

Community colleges include groups who are less valued in the Student Success model, casualties in tough economic times. Older adults have particularly felt this devaluation, as have local residents who take community education classes in foreign languages or sewing or figure drawing simply for enrichment of their lives.

ESL, in the community college model, is not there solely to prepare students for measurable completions. Its purpose can include classes in citizenship, vocational training, and skills focus classes in listening, speaking, writing or reading - classes students feel they need.

They may take credit ESL classes if their purposes are academic, with a view toward certificates, degrees and transfer. But they may also take credit ESL for career advancement. This is particularly common among evening credit ESL students, many of whom work full-time during the day and study at night. They may be accountants or architects or social workers who already have degrees from their home countries.

While credit students fit fairly well into the junior college model, as long as they pursue completions, noncredit students are less secure in that model. They may have personal goals which do not include certificates, degrees or transfer, but are fundamental life skills: surviving in a new country, understanding their children's education better, increasing their income, learning to pay an electric bill etc. How do we measure these successes?

It is difficult to measure traditional notions of success, to count existing types of completion and make sure we're capturing every single item, especially if it is tied to funding. It is even more difficult to introduce more up-to-date notions of success. How do you measure success students achieve outside school? How do you measure the success of older adults who are healthier because of their active involvement in school - by looking at public health costs? Not easy metrics, these. But they are all products of a more inclusive notion of community colleges.

So what is a college's mission? Is it an expression of the needs and desires of its local community, or is it dictated at the state and federal level? Who decides how public funds that support it should be used, and where is the balance?

Gregory Keech is the elected chair of the Department of English as a Second Language (ESL) at City College of San Francisco – comprised of 250 faculty members and serving over 25,000 ESL students a year. Its curriculum encompasses literacy to advanced composition, in both credit and noncredit modes. The department complements academic pathways already in place for its students with strong pathways to the many Career and Technical Education certificate programs at the College.


Greg holds a BS in Portuguese from Georgetown University (1980) and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from San Francisco State University (1985).