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The Review of Higher Education 25.1 (2001) 91-114

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Culture and Ideology in Keeping Transfer Commitment:
Three Community Colleges

Kathleen M. Shaw and Howard B. London

Situated as they are between high schools and four-year colleges, community colleges are at the crossroads of social mobility in American society. The proportion of first-year, first-time students who enroll in public two-year colleges rose from 17% in 1955 to 44% in 1997; and as we enter a new century, the nation numbers more than 1,200 community colleges (National Center, 1997). [End Page 91] Community colleges also enroll an increasing proportion of this nation's poor, working-class, and minority students. For these populations in particular, community colleges are often the first step toward acquiring one of our society's most effective, but by no means assured, tickets into the broad middle class: a bachelor's degree.

Although originally developed to deliver the equivalent of the first two years of a baccalaureate education (Dougherty, 1994), the mission of the community college is far from monolithic today. Indeed, there is a clear trend toward comprehensiveness in the community college mission (Bailey & Averianova, 1999). Most offer a remarkably varied curriculum, with different blends of vocational, career, adult education, remedial, agricultural, and liberal arts programs. Partnerships with industry and local and state governments have resulted in the development of relatively short-term, certificate-oriented training programs (Dougherty & Bakia, 2000), while financial pressures and opportunities have rendered this sector of education increasingly entrepreneurial (Grubb et al., 1997).

Indeed, as the sector's mission has diversified, so too has its student population. Not only are community college students more ethnically and racially diverse than they were a generation ago but these students are also more diverse in their educational and career aspirations, as well as in their levels of educational preparation. While scholars are still debating whether changes in the student population led to changes in educational mission or vice versa, what is clear is that, within this context, the traditional transfer function of the community college--that is, its role in providing a bridge to the four-year college and ultimately to the baccalaureate degree--has been declining in overall importance. Although the vast majority of community college students transferred to four-year institutions up until the late 1960s (Dougherty, 1994), in recent years the percentage of students who transfer has declined significantly, with estimates varying from about 20% to about 40% (Grubb, 1991, 1996).

Yet despite the decline of the transfer function and the general trend toward vocationalism and comprehensiveness in mission in the sector as a whole, some community colleges have resisted this trend, instead developing various approaches to maintaining the transfer function as their primary focus. Still others have adopted a comprehensive mission but have also continued to perform the transfer function effectively. However, we know little about how such colleges maintain their commitment to transfer despite considerable pressure to divert attention and resources away from this function.

In this paper, we use the concepts of ideology and culture to understand how some community colleges sustain the transfer function in the face of multiple challenges to that mission. With ethnographic data from three urban community colleges, we pose the following questions: [End Page 92]

1. How do community colleges approach the transfer function in the face of pressures to diversify their mission and function?

2. How can we use the concepts of ideology and culture to understand variations in institutional approaches to transfer within this context?

Because community colleges are so varied in their purposes, histories, and cultures, such questions cannot be answered by exploring a single community college in-depth; nor can they be addressed by conducting another large, macro-level examination of the sector as a whole. Instead, scholars must combine the strengths of both approaches and do in-depth, micro-level examinations of multiple community colleges. This was our approach in conducting the research described in this paper. Drawing from a larger study of urban community colleges with...


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