Arthur M. Cohen
Director, ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges
University of California, Los Angeles

Cortes (1994, p. 6) stated, "We do not march into the future. We back into it ... dragging the heavy hand of history."

Projecting the future for the community colleges of the early twenty-first century involves projecting the future for the nation in general: its demographics, economy, and public attitudes. The demographics are apparent—the potential college students are today in the lower schools—but the number who will attend community colleges or other types of institutions is uncertain. The national economy is even less certain. However, the United States is a great economic engine, with a highly trained cadre of professional practitioners able to adjust to shifting influences in the workplace. Barring a major social upheaval such as a war, depression, or severe inflation, the nation will be able to continue educating its youth and sustain lifelong learning for its adults. Community colleges will play a role in this process similar to that which they have developed over much of this century: prebaccalaureate, occupational, remedial, and adult education, provided to a broad spectrum of the local population.

Public attitude, always mercurial, influences the colleges. Periodic disgruntlement with taxation sometimes translates into less support for education, as does the rise of other priorities such as prisons and the criminal justice system. But as long as college degrees are perceived as the route toward personal advancement, people will demand access and will eventually agree to pay for it. None of the fiscal crises in any of the states has led to serious calls to close down the higher education system.

The number of public community colleges will not expand much; practically all the colleges necessary had been built by 1975, when a college could be found within commuting distance of nearly all the people in all but a few states. The number has remained constant ever since, reaching stasis at just over a thousand. Change in this group will occur only to the extent that public universities organize additional two-year branch campuses or community colleges upgrade satellite centers to full campus status.

The form of the community college will not change either. The institution offering career, collegiate, developmental, and continuing education has become well accepted by the public and by state-level coordinating and funding agencies.

The People Within

There will be plenty of students to share among all postsecondary sectors. The absolute number of eighteen-year-olds in the United States peaked at 4.3 million in 1979, bottomed at 3.3 million in 1992, and will rise to 4 million by 2004. Anticipating less school dropout, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts that the number of high school graduates in 2004 will surpass 3 million, the same as the number that graduated when the population of eighteen-year-olds was at its peak in 1979 (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995a).

College-going expectations keep rising. In 1992, 78 percent of all seniors said they planned on attending a postsecondary institution immediately after high school graduation, up from 59 percent twenty years earlier (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995b). Although more than half planned on attending a four-year college, many will be diverted to community college as they find they cannot get into the restricted freshman classes at universities. Community college enrollments will rise somewhat but the number of associate degrees awarded will show a proportionately greater increase as strengthened matriculation and attendance requirements reduce the percentage of casual attendees. The concept, "Let everyone in and let them take what they want," will finally be put to rest.

Because college enrollments will grow slowly, the number of faculty will show similarly small increases. The ratio of full-timers to part-timers has stabilized at just under 40:60, and will likely remain there as administrators' desires to save money by employing part-timers and faculty organizations' ability to protect full-time positions offset one another. A high proportion of full-timers teach additional courses for extra pay, thus making it unnecessary to employ additional staff except in singular areas. Demands that full-time instructors be awarded rights of first refusal when overload classes are imminent will continue. The next professional enhancements will be led by instructors who build reproducible learning sequences and interactive media. To the extent they can demonstrate that their efforts have effected greater learning opportunities for less money, they will be recognized as instructional leaders. More than managers of paraprofessionals, they will be involved with new sets of colleagues: media technologists, script writers, editors, and production coordinators. This will happen slowly, and only to the extent that the colleges can make funds available for this expensive effort.

Organization, Governance, and Finance

Few changes in the pattern of organization and governance in community colleges are evident. The number of institutions will grow very slowly as new colleges are formed in the few states that do not now have an institution within commuting distance of most of their population. But for the most part, branch campuses, satellite centers, and courses offered off campus in rented quarters will accommodate the need for expanded facilities. Many small autonomous centers or specialized units within larger districts will be built. Some of these centers will emphasize career studies and recertification for paraprofessionals; others, operating much like university extension divisions, will offer courses in numerous locations and over open-circuit television. These types of instructional centers have accounted for nearly all the institutional expansion that has occurred since the early 1970s.

The trend toward greater state-level coordination will continue at a slow pace. As the states become more involved with college policies, gaps in interinstitutional cooperation will be filled, and criteria for student matriculation and progress will be set. Statewide coordination will provide proportionate funding, avoiding curriculum duplication and easing the flow of students from one sector of public postsecondary education to another.

The pressure for state control will result in continued efforts to micromanage the colleges, but it will have minimal effect on instruction and student services. State-level coordination relates more to reporting, compliance with regulations, and accountability for numerous aspects of institutional operations; there is much room for local autonomy within those requirements.

Community college instruction costs about one-half as much per student as in a comprehensive four-year institution and about one-fourth as much as in a public research university. Still, the colleges are public entities. Their support depends on legislative perceptions and available public dollars.

The colleges will be asked to provide evidence of increased productivity and specific programmatic outcomes, which will lead to greater efficiencies. Cost savings will lead to moves toward year-long calendars and eighteen-hour days. These will relieve capital costs but will also increase costs of campus security, energy use, and building maintenance. The greatest savings will come from converting more staff to part-time, hourly pay schedules. However, institutional support is sustained in a political arena; it is only tangentially related to outcomes.

Colleges cannot expect to fund wage increases or the costs of new programs, including the widely heralded instructional technology revolution, through traditional budget lines. Similarly, new construction will have to be supported by special appropriations rather than capital fund increases.

Funding efforts (for example, seeking grants, finding public agencies with funds, training staff to support fundraising efforts, leasing campus areas to agencies for fairs, shows, swap meets) will be pursued and rewarded. Contract training for local businesses will relieve a portion of the overhead.CurriculumRegardless of the spread of multimedia, interactive media, and other distance-learning technologies, classroom-centered instruction will not diminish very much as a percentage of instructional effort. Think of all the media that were supposed to change the conditions of teaching. To the phonograph, telephone, radio, television, and computer have been added laser-directed discs, satellite downlinks, and other electronic marvels too numerous to tabulate. But the dream of students learning on their own while their instructors are freed from information dispensing to engage in creative interaction with them has remained just that—a dream.

Career education will remain prominent. One of the colleges' prime functions is to train workers, and ample funds are available to support this function. Competition from universities that develop programs in the technologies, from proprietary schools, and from publicly funded ad hoc job-training programs that teach the more specific skills will not change the central tendency. There is enough demand to keep them all occupied, even as programs rise and fall.

A sizable amount of basic skill development will continue to be necessary for many years. Community colleges will not only offer it on their own campuses, they will also expand their teaching of literacy in universities, lower schools, and business enterprises. Whether developmental education is funded separately, or whether its cost is aggregated along with other curricular functions, it will account for one-third of the instructional budget.

The prognosis for the collegiate curriculum is good. The linkage aspect of the collegiate function, centering on preparing students to enter junior-level programs leading to bachelor's degrees in health fields, business, technologies, and the professions, will thrive, because entrance to those programs depends on students completing courses in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and English. General education will continue being debated in the context of distribution requirements. It cannot become the guiding principle of an institution that is less dedicated to societal benefit than it is dedicated to each individual's immediate concerns.

The concept of instructional productivity will be central to the moves toward media production and accountability. In the university, productivity coalesced around ideas of research and scholarship. In the community college, productivity has been defined as numbers of students taught per instructional dollar. The number of students exposed to an instructional medium, whether in a classroom or on a television screen or on a computer terminal elsewhere, is only one among many possible measures of productivity. Changes in instructional form and in measures of instructional productivity will have to proceed in tandem. Eventually, measures of student learning, achievement, and satisfaction will have to be brought forward. More than in any other area, the specter of institutional accountability looms over occupational programs. But they are so popular in an era of intense economic combativeness that modest changes in format will satisfy for the present.

Last, despite the massive growth in access to schooling and the vastly greater and diverse number who have enrolled, there is still a question of the effect on the communities. Do schools not build a better society? The individual mobility that they effect does not translate into reorganized cities, changed working conditions, modified immigration policies, or much of anything else affecting the quality of life across the community.

A view of the social conditions in the United States at the end of the twentieth century should be considered as part of the context for the colleges of the twenty-first century.

  • High immigration both in absolute numbers and in percentages of the population, along with demands for and counter demands against anti-immigration regulations
  • Multilingualism with scores of foreign-language newspapers and a population housed in ethnic enclaves
  • Overcrowded cities with unclean pavements and intractable homelessness
  • Practically no fringe benefits for the workforce
  • Rampant piecework in the workplace and return to cottage industries
  • Increasing gap between the rich and the poor
  • Producer or assembly jobs yielding wages insufficient to sustain a family above the poverty line
  • Weak trade unions, representing a small proportion of the workforce
  • Business entrepreneurship as the path to capital formation for the individual
  • Paucity of civility, when compared with an earlier era
  • Increased formation of youth gangs engaged in various criminal activities

One thousand community colleges have not changed those conditions. And probably one thousand more would not do so either. The answer lies, as we suggested in this article's beginning, in our ability to adjust to shifting influences in the workplace. Institutional advocates must stop deceiving themselves and must accept and harness the offering of technology to serve both the new and old needs of our communities of the future.

Note: This article is a modification of the concluding chapter in Cohen and Brawer, The American Community College. (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.


National Center for Education Statistics. Projections of Education Statistics to 2005. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1995a.

National Center for Education Statistics. Trends Among High School Seniors, 1972–1992. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1995b.

Cortes, C. E. "Backing into the Future: Columbus, Custer and the Diversity Revolution." In D. W. Brown (ed.), Higher Education Exchange. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1994.

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