Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Community College FAQ: What’s a ‘Comprehensive Community College’?

Full delgado cc 2

Image: Isaac Delgado Hall, Delgado Community College

As you peruse the job listings for two-year colleges this fall, you may find yourself a bit confused by the various designations. Is a community college different from a technical college? What exactly is a “comprehensive community college”? A “state college”? (Hint: It’s not just a town in Pennsylvania.)

In fact, there are several different types of institutions that fall under the general heading of “two-year colleges” and are therefore known informally, if sometimes inaccurately, as “community colleges.” But the differences can be significant. So it’s a good idea — as you prepare a community-college job search — to become familiar with the labels before you decide to apply to a particular campus.

Most two-year colleges in the United States are comprehensive community colleges, which basically means they offer both general-education and technical programs on the same campus. (That is the preferred model in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.) Students on both tracks are required to take many of the same entry-level courses in writing, math, science, and social science, so as an instructor you will likely have students who plan on transferring to a university and earning a bachelor’s degree sitting alongside students who are there to get a two-year technical degree and then enter the workforce. There is also, typically, a great deal of mobility between the two tracks, as these young (and sometimes not-so-young) people figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Institutions that designate themselves as technical colleges obviously tend to focus more on technical programs and workforce development — although not exclusively. Most technical colleges these days offer gen-ed courses, and many have morphed over time into, essentially, comprehensive community colleges, even if they retain the term “technical” in their name. In some states, like Kentucky, technical campuses were merged at some point with nearby community colleges to create “community and technical colleges” — a designation also found in states like South Carolina and Tennessee.

A handful of states — most notably Georgia and Wisconsin — have traditionally divided the workforce development and gen-ed functions on separate campuses. That model seems to be dying out, however. More and more technical institutions in those states have morphed into comprehensive community colleges that offer both training and transfer. Meanwhile, many two-year colleges that focused on general education for transfer students have moved toward becoming four-year institutions.

Which brings me to the next category, a fairly recent addition to the community-college landscape: state colleges. Common in Florida and now Georgia, these are primarily institutions that were once two-year colleges but now offer a handful of four-year degrees — or, in some cases, just one or two bachelor’s degrees. In most respects, these institutions still function exactly like community colleges, with the vast majority of students still planning either to transfer to a university or else earn a two-year degree and then get a job.

In the last category are two-year branch campuses of four-year universities — as found in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and now Georgia. (My own employer, Georgia Perimeter College, was a multi-campus, two-year transfer institution and is now being consolidated with Georgia State University, a Research I). Two-year branch campuses also operate much like community colleges, in that they offer primarily associate degrees (although some offer four-year degrees, too) and most students plan on transferring to continue their studies. However, because of their affiliation with a research university, they tend to be more university-like than two-year colleges in other categories.

Keep in mind: These are my own observations about the two-year sector (although I’ve spent years observing it). There can also be a great deal of ambiguity and overlap, as individual colleges evolve over time and states make fiscal decisions to merge, consolidate, or eliminate campuses. There may even be new types of two-year colleges emerging that I’m not yet aware of. At this level of postsecondary education, the only real constant is change.

Having worked at several different types of two-year colleges, I would say that the more focused a college is on workforce development, the less university-like it tends to be. Institutions that designate themselves as “technical colleges” are less likely to have tenure or academic rank, and are more likely to treat their faculty like high-school teachers, requiring them to be on campus 35 to 40 hours a week, mandating a dress code, and so forth. Conversely, the more a college focuses on preparing students to transfer to a university, the more university-like it is apt to be in terms of governance, how it treats faculty, and so forth.

That’s not to suggest technical colleges are necessarily bad places to work. They’re not, they’re just different. It just depends on what you’re looking for in an academic employer — assuming you can afford to be choosy. But at least you now understand the differences a little better.

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