Community College Is the Disruptor That Is Here Today

I’ve been trying to write this post since February, and each time it spirals out of control. So here’s an attempt to barrel through and tell it plain.

“Disruptive Technology” used to mean something. It’s actually defined, in a book-length tome, by Clayton Christensen in the mid-90s. And it’s definition hinges on a set of cultural and economic pressures.

In a truly disruptive situation, major players in a market make sustaining improvements to their core product to serve an existing customer base. Think housing, where everyone tries to build bigger and better houses, and make money on customization and upgrades. Meanwhile, down-market a group of people not served by the core product make do with an inferior product. Let’s say, in this case, modular homes. So you’ve got your traditional buyers and your trailer park residents.

What the disruption is (and the only type of disruption that is actually meaningful) is when suddenly traditional buyers of houses start looking at the rapidly improving modular homes and think — hey, maybe we could go modular!

At that point, all the process around the traditional product and all the corporate capacity to produce it become a bit of a burden. Additionally it’s not quite worth it enough to shed the existing customer base — which locks the traditional market into their current business model, and unable to fully evolve (think about the way Microsoft’s Office Suite revenue has constrained its available strategies).

So, is that what is happening in the housing market? Oh, who knows. Probably not. But the potential is there. When a large number of third generation traditional homeowners start looking at $150,000 modulars, that’s when you’ll know.

Is that happening in the higher education market?

Interesting thing, that. A while back my wife said to me, regarding our daughter’s college education  — if we can’t make it work without deep loans, we’ll just have her go to community college a couple years, then transfer in, because “no one cares where you spent your freshman year.”

I am a second generation college student on my Dad’s side. I’ve got a Masters degree. I work in higher education. But the more I thought about it, the more it made a sort of sense. The “cruise ship” amenities colleges have had to provide to compete are a distraction, and attract a set of students that aren’t really helpful to Katie’s success. The social culture of college has also become increasingly dysfunctional, and is not always suitable for a 18 year old kid (whereas it’s something a slightly older student can often navigate well). The students I have met coming into four-year college from the community college system have generally been some of the best students I have known.

And as far as quality? At least with the online/hybrid courses, the better community colleges have been putting us to shame both in breadth and quality of offerings. Add to that that as the distributed flip takes root as a model, they may be participating in the same classes as their peers at four-year, Masters, and Research institutions.

That, to me, looks like disruption, much more than any individual piece of software using “adaptive intellegence” or any free online course. It’s hard to explain, but I can feel a cultural shift where parents need not be ashamed of sending their kids to community college (and graduating them debt-free) compared to parents that encourage their children to take on debt to go to that dreamy four-year experience. Economically, students with associates degrees are actually already outperforming students with BA’s in the labor market (albeit due to compositional effects).

Once the cultural shift happens, once community college becomes seen as something other than a second-rate experience, things can happen rather quickly. Unlike MOOCs or ccompetency-based credit, everything is already wired up to go for credentialing. And while the effects won’t be catastrophic, the institutions that want to remain relevant would do well to look at the community college market now, and think about what lessons they can learn from it.

Anyway, that’s the *short* version.

[Incidentally, Jeff Selingo (@jselingo) wrote something very smart about this a little bit ago, but I’m having trouble tracking it down now (it may be behind a paywall or nag-wall).]



4 thoughts on “Community College Is the Disruptor That Is Here Today

  1. A few points to push back on:

    *There is a rising sentiment in middle and upper middle class families that attending one or two years of CC or JuCo is ideal (or at least neutral), as it provides core subjects and credit hours without the high cost of tuition for a student working through maturity. It’s not the party culture associated with state schools, nor is it the grind of privates (or cost of liberal arts), and kids can explore majors without impacting the breadwinner retirement. But that is a very middle and upper middle class sentiment. The predominant users of CCs and JuCos are middle and lower middle families, or working adults. For them it’s not a springboard — it’s the location. CCs and JuCos have a tie to community that Research 1 and state schools take for granted (because the name of the city is usually in the monicker), and it’s an important bond. What gets lost when the population starts to view the institution not as a public good (which involves give and take both from student and institution) and more of a private good (use it as it benefits you)? My local CC does the usual college stuff (musicals, art exhibits, bake sales), but also has a few things unique to my area of Los Angeles — a ranch, a Christmas village in December for children, hay rides in the autumn…which are tied into the ranching history of the area (I live in greater Los Angeles, not LA proper). Those services, which I pay for as a taxpayer (and I do so freely, understanding the importance of the public sphere) will change if the student body starts to look at CC as a disruption, and not in a way positive to the community or the lower income student.
    *I was at this CC today, and the experience was both invigorating and alarming. The new fine arts building (with the help of local donors) is state-of-the-art. As is the agri center. But the core subjects? They are in double-wide trailers, reminding me of my days in overcrowded elementary schools. To this school’s credit, the administration moved to double-wides in order for their building to have use for student needs, but the overcrowding is alarming. As is the “state” of these classrooms. There is nothing smart or technical about them, except a dry erase board.
    *Your distributed flip idea is intriguing (though you know I have reservations about the etymology), but what does it mean on the CC level, which would be a primary target? In California, we raised taxes for education, but it cannot solve the overcrowding on campuses and its trickle down (larger student-teacher ratios, difficulty in outfitting classrooms to compete in the modern day, lessening faculty workload). There is a digital imperialism argument about the distributed flip, or the notion of a home base for content where faculty take and manifest in their own environment. That’s part of the rub with the philosophy department at San Jose State. We say that taking the development of lessons and curriculum out of the hands of the teacher allows them to “do what they do best,” but is the fracturing of labor truly a gain? If learning is environmental and social, part of it is to adapt a core component and track it along a path, tinkering along the way, and utilizing unique assessment as the course progresses. Taking the development of course materials and content away from the instructor impedes that, putting a premium on the content as provided by whatever service (Pearson, for example). And as the students at the CCs and JuCos are more often than not the ones who did not score well on the Pearson tests in high school, how is a world of that content, without the touch of a local instructor with ties to the community and a knowledge of the student base, going to make for better learning?

    I’m a ways away from sending my child to college, and I’ve had the same thought as you expressed here. But I hope the answer is to find a way to better fund the existing infrastructure rather than to continue down the privatization model (both as a business and as a social good).

  2. Rolin — all good points. Let me be clear that I’m neutral as to whether this would be a good or a bad thing — I just increasingly see it as a thing that is going to happen in some form. Obviously, we all get a say in what exact form that is. Personally, I hope that 4-years can wake up and stop the insane push to get up the Carnegie Ladder, b/c more than anything, what most CCs have is a refreshingly limited mission, which makes other things easy.

    I agree the sentiment in the upper and middle classes is in advance of the reality. And the point about service vs. consumer focus is too too true. We’ve seen this story before. When I went to school in the late paleolithic, school was relatively cheap, and I don’t remember feeling like a customer on the academic side (although food and housing was a different matter). That feeling, that students were not consumers, has been lost with price increases and cultural change; I’d hate to see it invade CCs as well.

    Skipping to the flip implications — I think this is a hard one. The solution Amy and I have been promoting is a Community of Practice around the flip content that allows for input and expansion by practitioners. This is the sort of WordPress model — broad adoption, separation of tasks, but a community where the people that use it are also the people that extend it and make it awesome.

    The likelihood of that happening is very low — it relies on a level of cooperation and contribution higher education has sucked at, and due to our never ending brand wars and the “not built here” syndrome, there’s not really fertile ground to build the CoP. But these are early days, and it’s precisely the dystopian elements you cite that push me (and Amy) to be very vocal about CoPs early on, when there’s a silver of a chance that people might try this way of working. If we don’t actively shape this, I think the default is to head to a consumer-producer division that looks less like WordPress and more like your relationship with Time Warner. Which, well, ugh.

  3. Well said. I fear that the best use of a “distributed flip” and a CoP within the MOOC sphere will be in less formal or informal learning environments…which is good for those places, but (thinking about what Bonnie Stewart said somewhere recently) it will be distinct from credentialing and authenticating, which is where the crux of edu policy today is taking.

    Article in the LATimes today about how college is not such a good investment ties exactly into your post…you are right that prevailing sentiment is moving there. I do wish we as a society could include more marginalized voices in the dominant discourse, because the kids with middle-low or low incomes don’t get to think about how to game the system for their uses, and the idea of not going to college because it’s not a good ROI fails to consider the economic, environmental and social realities of the less than affluent situation in America today. If college is about the potential for upward mobility, I fear this idea of “it’s not worth it” is a tacit removal of upward mobility from our culture.

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