You’re poor. Or black. Or Hispanic. Or an older person whose high school record is so bad it hardly counts. You’ve been told repeatedly by teachers, employers, and the media that the only way you’ll make it is to get a college education. But entrance exams seem to you an impossible obstacle, and even if you could pass them, tuition is astronomical and going higher. What do you do?

You attend the inexpensive and easily accessible City Colleges of Chicago, where you get an associate in arts degree, and then you transfer to a four-year college or university in order to earn your baccalaureate.

Yeah, sure.

If you think the City Colleges exist to pave the way to higher education–or that they come even close to doing so for the vast majority of their students–you’re stuck in a time warp. A study by the Illinois Community College Board a few years ago predicted that of 25,503 students enrolled in City Colleges baccalaureate programs in 1988, only 2 percent would be likely to attain a bachelor’s degree by 1992. And now, with the appointment by Mayor Daley of Ronald Gidwitz to head the City Colleges Board of Trustees, the situation is about to get worse. Daley and Gidwitz, who is CEO of Helene Curtis Industries, think that the way to arouse the City Colleges from their longstanding and well-publicized torpor–and, by the way, to provide capable workers for Chicago’s businesses so they won’t flee the city–is to increase the colleges’ emphasis on vocational and remedial education.

But speaking as one who has been intimately involved with the City Colleges for more than 32 years–primarily as a teacher but also briefly as an administrator–I am convinced that Daley and Gidwitz are wrong on both counts. It is not likely that the City Colleges will be able to supply to businessmen like Gidwitz the well-educated and motivated work force they desire. Indeed, increased emphasis on vocationalization will ultimately undermine the quality of Chicago’s work force and, more important, thwart the aspirations of the city’s economically and educationally disadvantaged, for whom the City Colleges are the only available avenue to a college degree.

In short, vocational and remedial education are not the solution to the City Colleges’ problem. They are the problem.

In a 1987 essay titled “The Effects of Community College: Aid or Hindrance to Socioeconomic Attainment?” educational researcher Kevin Dougherty pointed to numerous studies showing that attendance at the nation’s two-year colleges by students who could have gone straight to a four-year school actually lowered by 11 to 19 percent their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree. These studies, all done within the last ten years in various parts of the U.S., including Illinois, are referred to in a recently published book–The Diverted Dream–by Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel, sociology professors at Yale and the University of California respectively. Brint and Karabel point to several reasons for this decrease in opportunity, including “the frequently nonacademic atmosphere at community colleges, the tendency to track would-be transfer students into occupational programs, the absence of residential facilities, and the relative lack of supportive peer groups.”

What Brint and Karabel report for community colleges throughout the United States is certainly true of the City Colleges of Chicago. Earlier this year, Gary Orfield, an education professor who recently moved to Harvard from the University of Chicago, and his associate Maria Langan released a study of the City Colleges called The Revolving Door: City Colleges of Chicago 1980-1989. Among their findings–which clearly reflect the national trends pointed to by Brint and Karabel–the report notes, “Enrollment has been shifting away from baccalaureate programs toward occupational and adult education programs.” Credit enrollment fell by 26.3 percent from 1985 to 1989, the report states, while Adult Learning Skills classes increased in enrollment by 42.1 percent.

“This shift in enrollment . . . is a trend unique in Illinois to the City Colleges,” say the researchers; it has happened “because so-called skills courses . . . require less time to complete and aim at immediate jobs rather than further education.”

Despite this shift in emphasis, however, “Occupational/vocational and adult education programs have shown few completions among their students.” The report cites a whopping 52.2 percent decrease in these “completions” from 1985 to ’89, suggesting that students are frequently enrolled in these programs even when it is clear at the outset that they won’t be able to get through them.

As for the traditional junior college function, the Orfield/Langan report says, “Transfers from the City Colleges seldom show success in four-year, baccalaureate institutions.” Using figures compiled by the Illinois Community College Board, the report says that the CCC transfer success rate–with success defined as a bachelor’s degree–is 29.8 percent, the rate outside Chicago 53.8 percent.

Finally, the report addresses the crucial issue of minority access to education: “The trends in City College enrollment and completion are particularly shocking for black students. Black enrollment and completion rates have declined sharply and the door of opportunity is closing for the group that is by far the most disadvantaged in the job market.”

“The risk of not having a functioning City College system that can meet its basic goals should not be underestimated,” the report concludes. “It would mean, quite simply, that most low-income and minority students in the city would have no affordable path to obtain the education and skills they so desperately need.”

The question at the heart of this matter–should junior colleges train students for the workplace or for higher education?–is almost as old as the institution of the junior college itself. The two-year college was born here in Illinois at the turn of the century, the invention of midwestern academics like William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago, and the presidents of the universities of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota. In a 1987-88 monograph celebrating the 75th anniversary of the City Colleges of Chicago, CCC history professor Keith Dobberstein wrote that these presidents were “powerful spokesmen for the idea that the initial college years were different in content and technique than the rest of higher education.” The first half of a college education should be more or less generic, they said; only after the second year was there any need for a student to specialize. Between 1850 and 1900, Dobberstein told us, these academicians pressed for separation between the first two years of college and the upper years, and in 1901 their reasoning bore fruit in the establishment of Joliet Junior College, the first two-year college in the United States. The City Colleges followed in 1911.

But even then the progressive movement–including such significant figures as the educator-philosopher John Dewey, Chicago schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young, and the social activist of Hull House, Jane Addams–was joining with the leaders of Chicago’s business community to promote the concept that the basic purpose or “mission” of the junior college should be to provide job training to serve the economic needs of a swiftly growing community. “The Progressives,” said Dobberstein, “sought increased opportunities for educational and economic mobility for the urban masses.” Thus was posed the question that plagues the City Colleges to this day: should they be primarily an institution of higher education, or an instrument of social change?

For a long time the question remained submerged, perhaps because the goals of higher education and social progress were congruent enough to allow peaceful coexistence. In any case, the City Colleges over the years attracted and served many capable and qualified public school students who lacked only the financial resources to enter directly into the university. The heyday of the colleges was the late 20s and 30s, a time when their classes were filled with highly motivated, talented students who went on to earn their degrees, typically, at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, or the University of Illinois. Even in the late 50s and 60s such students existed, though in fewer numbers. I remember engaging in intellectually stimulating, tough-minded, thoughtful (and sometimes raucous) discussions with very bright students at Mayfair College (a northwest-side campus that in 1976 moved to Uptown, where it became transmogrified into Truman College). During that time I had students who went on to earn not only bachelor’s degrees but MAs and doctorates as well.

All in all, the view that the main purpose of the junior college was to provide the first two years of a traditional college education prevailed in Chicago for some 55 years, despite attempts along the way to change it. It prevailed, in part, as a result of the colleges’ ties to the University of Chicago, including the use of the survey courses developed there under the chancellorship of Robert Maynard Hutchins; these yearlong “core” courses gave students excellent grounding in general education by illustrating existing relationships among different kinds of knowledge–say, art, architecture, music, literature, and philosophy. And it prevailed because a very large number of CCC instructors earned their advanced degrees at Chicago.

Nevertheless, City Colleges did begin changing drastically about 25 years ago, from a relatively single-minded institution of higher education to one with a multifaceted mission including strong elements of vocational and remedial education. One reason for the change, certainly, was the explosion of social services associated with the War on Poverty, which probably affected all urban junior colleges. In a national climate of newly developing consciousness about minority rights and opportunities, the City Colleges, like other public institutions, aggressively began seeking “nontraditional” students to enroll in their baccalaureate program. (The term “nontraditional” was used euphemistically to replace the word “minority.”)

Few of the recruited students had educational backgrounds that could reasonably be expected to result in success, but boards and administrations, as well as many faculty, felt these students needed to be given every opportunity to gain a college education. So the colleges added many new levels of remedial courses, particularly in English and math. Then among young, liberal, white faculty there developed a view that remediation of minority students was somehow racist, so there was a movement to do away with these remedial courses and place everyone in true college-level classes.

After minority failure rates skyrocketed, most people in the colleges concluded that more rather than less help was needed, so in the late 70s a second approach was added–Mastery Learning. Aided by major grants, this program attempted to reduce the ever-growing numbers of student failures by breaking down courses into something called “measurable objectives.” Students were then taken by the hand and, step-by-step, guided–some say “spoon-fed”–through a series of tests (taken as many times as necessary), and helped to “master” the curriculum. Proponents of Mastery Learning claimed absolutely anybody under the sun was capable of getting A’s. But like other highly touted educational experiments, this one promised a good deal more than it was ever able to deliver.

Accompanying the trend toward remedial education was a national movement toward “vocationalization,” which as we have seen goes back to the beginnings of the junior college movement. The idea was promoted heavily during the Depression by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (popularly known as the Commission of Seven), a panel of prominent university administrators. They promoted this view in the face of resistance from potential community college students and their parents, who viewed the two-year institution as a means by which to gain entry to the university and, thus, become upwardly mobile.

The commission was, to say the least, disingenuous: “Students cannot be forced to elect [vocational education] when and if they do not wish it,” the administrators reported. But as Brint and Karabel point out, the commission declared that some students “ought” to choose it, calling their refusal to do so an “undemocratic trend.” This view was in keeping with the commission’s covert agenda, which was to keep as many of these students as possible–many of them immigrants and workers–from entering the university. In other words, the Commission of Seven was attempting to carry on in the New World the old European concept of the separation between academic and vocational work, with its implicit suggestion of class warfare.

This concept was enthusiastically revived in the 1960s by junior college professionals. They cited newly advanced “scientific” reports by psychologists showing that not all students were alike and, therefore, should not all have the same kinds of higher education. But Brint and Karabel contend that their real motive was the community college’s “vested interest in establishing for itself a distinctive market niche in an organizational field dominated by four-year colleges and universities.”

Here in Chicago these national trends were exacerbated by developments that were essentially political in nature. In 1966, the Illinois General Assembly changed the governance of the state’s two-year colleges, separating them from the common school boards to which they had been attached and establishing the Illinois Community College Board, a subdivision of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the body that oversees Illinois’ four-year colleges and universities.

According to Section 122 of the Illinois Revised Statutes, the newly created community college board was to determine curriculum, administration, and standards and to “co-ordinate the programs, services and activities of all community colleges in the State.” The City Colleges faculty welcomed this change–they had longed to get out from under the rigidity and low status of the Chicago Board of Education. But they learned to regret it bitterly, for the ICCB soon mandated the above-mentioned move toward vocational education, which had been sweeping the country but had not yet taken hold in Chicago because of the City Colleges’ academic traditions. CCC was now required–by statute–to offer courses in “occupational, semi-technical or technical fields leading directly to employment.”

According to the Illinois School Code, “At least 15 percent of all courses taught must be in fields leading directly to employment, one half of which courses to be in fields other than business education.” Thus, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, Body and Fender Technology, and Mortuary Science were listed in the catalog with Problems in Philosophy, English Literature From the Romantic Revival to the Twentieth Century, and the History of World Civilization. All were viewed as equally valid college offerings.

The state of Illinois also had its own agenda. Like the nationally touted California arrangement that by law divided up students in higher education among the University of California, California State University, and the California junior and community colleges, Illinois wanted to be able to control enrollment patterns, if not so obviously.

Working through the Illinois Board of Higher Education, politicians, educators, and activist citizens created in 1964 an action plan called the Master Plan for Higher Education in Illinois, which would “[take] into account the various roles that can be performed by the public universities, the nonpublic colleges and universities, the two-year colleges, public and private, and other educational enterprises.” One goal was to vocationalize the two-year college:

“Nationally, the offering of technical education is considered a primary function of two-year colleges. However, the junior colleges of Illinois offer only 28 different semi-technical and technical programs. . . . Illinois has a definite need for more variety in its opportunities for occupational training.”

This statement decrying the lack of vocationalism in the state’s junior colleges was an early indicator of the split that would take place among the University of Illinois, the state university system, and the two-year junior, now community, colleges. The 1964 Master Plan justified the planned separation of educational opportunities in higher education as “preservation of diversity.” For the two-year colleges, this “diversity” meant specializing in vocational/occupational training, not aping the four-year schools. These colleges were called on to “expand technical and semi-technical education, as well as programs designed to serve seriously under-educated youth.”

For those seeking education for the professions–medicine, law, engineering–there was the premier state research institution, the University of Illinois; for those choosing more modest occupations, such as teaching or semiprofessional work in the sciences, there were the state universities, former teachers’ colleges, dotting the Illinois landscape. The two-year schools would serve students who ostensibly could benefit only from vocational offerings.

While the new state law removed community colleges from local school board control, it perpetuated the old funding system. Unlike the senior colleges and universities in Illinois, each of which is provided with a yearly budget with specific dollar amounts, the state community colleges still receive reimbursements based on the number of credit hours students enroll for–in other words, they are funded like local schools and, more to the point, like social service agencies. And the state treats them like social agencies rather than as truly academic institutions, adjusting its funding formulas to achieve social policy results.

Last year, for example, the state paid the City Colleges $75.04 per credit hour for courses in the nursing curriculum, $40.13 for technical courses, and $32.72 for baccalaureate courses. Thus the City Colleges have two chief incentives under the current funding scheme: the first encourages them to enroll as many students as possible, rather than to educate the students who come to their doors; the second encourages them to offer more vocational courses and far fewer academic courses.

The state law that created the ICCB also directed every community in the state to form its own community college district or become part of an existing one. In Chicago, the new district was called Community College District 508 and was contiguous with the boundaries of the city. Under the law, the new board could set local policy in curricular and all other college matters and, more importantly, it could levy taxes, thus providing a new basis of revenue for the city–as well as an additional source of jobs and contracts. The City Colleges were in effect transformed from an institution of higher education into a department of city government.

To lead the new agency, Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed as chancellor of the City Colleges Oscar Shabat, a man who had grown up in the clout-heavy 31st Ward, which belonged like a baronial fiefdom to Alderman Tom Keane, Mayor Daley’s right-hand man. In the culture of city politics, where bigger automatically meant better, and against the backdrop of expanding federal poverty spending, Shabat actively set about expanding his empire. He collected every agency, activity, and piece of real estate he could find, turning the City Colleges into an educational catchall that tried to meet all of the needs of all of the people all of the time. For example, the Colleges soon became the home of CUSI (the Chicago Urban Skills Institute), which purportedly taught short-term occupationally-oriented courses in entry secretarial practice and “cosmetology,” as well as adult literacy, Americanization classes, English-as-a-second-language classes, and on and on.

When all the enrollment numbers were combined, CCC became the second largest community college in the nation, with, according to ICCB statistics for 1984, close to a quarter of a million students. An educator might doubt the wisdom of such an agglomeration, but a city bureaucrat would point to it with pride.

The result of all these developments is an institution that is hopelessly confused about its identity; it tries to fulfill many missions and succeeds at none of them very well. The faculty members, who are unionized and overwhelmingly tenured, think of themselves as college teachers, as indeed most are, but more and more they are being forced to teach courses that have nothing to do with their fields of expertise. For the last three years the City Colleges administration has mandated that all classes be filled to 90 percent (or higher) of their theoretical maximums; in the parlance of the colleges, a class that isn’t is “killed” for the semester, and typically is not resurrected in following semesters, the reasoning being that such a course is not meeting the needs of the students. In the current education-as-job-training climate, the victims of such measures are often classes in the liberal arts and sciences: history, psychology, art, philosophy, literature, biology, and so on.

Thus at registration time one finds tenured professors of anthropology, French, and Spanish teaching courses in English as a second language, or instructors virtually running up and down the corridors searching for students to enroll in order to ensure their programs and thus their livelihoods. While state officials and administrators are emphasizing vocational courses, one frequently finds faculty–normally moral, decent individuals–attempting to talk students who can barely utter an articulate English sentence or write their names clearly on their registration cards into signing up for courses in logic, philosophy, Shakespeare, or political science. An instructor who successfully fills his classroom is then faced with the mammoth task of actually teaching his course to many students who lack the necessary background to understand it. Under these conditions, faculty burnout, if not outright cynicism, is common.

When Oscar Shabat retired, after a 17-year reign, Salvatore Rotella, a longtime CCC faculty member and administrator, took his place. In his attempt to reverse many of the trends begun by Shabat, Rotella approved a study of faculty and administration attitudes. Called the Profile Project, it was produced by City Colleges faculty member Michael Kaufman, whose doctorate is in psychology, aided by this writer, an English instructor who at that time was serving as assistant to the chancellor. The study, published in the spring of 1988 and based on interviews with selected CCC staff members, showed clearly that many faculty were frustrated and demoralized.

Some examples:

A member of the CCC nursing faculty said: “I don’t like the students less, but I am not equipped to teach remedial and bilingual students with such poor basics; that gets to be tremendously frustrating, discouraging as a certain amount of the standards go down. They have to, or else we’d flunk out most of the students.”

A physical science teacher echoed the same idea: “I had a student ask me, and this is not atypical, unfortunately, where–she was standing in front of a map of the United States–where was the Pacific Ocean in relation to California . . . ? I asked the student ‘Could you show me California on this map?’ A great big map of the United States, and she couldn’t.”

A librarian commented: “If you have a student come into the library who doesn’t know the alphabet and can’t read, you have a hell of a time helping him to do a research paper.”

An English instructor: “There is still a fight in our department about exit competence and whether or not it’s democratic and fair . . . and in our department we’ve come to some consensus; we feel it’s the way to go . . . passing students . . . without them knowing anything.”

Another veteran instructor: “Overall, I think [the colleges] are worse than they used to be. They do less–though they are trying to do more.”

And another: “If you’re looking for what I perceive as the problem of the City Colleges . . . it seems like there’s no single focus.”

The situation looks no better from the students’ point of view. With their multiple missions, the City Colleges draw an extremely diverse student body. Because of their weak backgrounds and their wildly divergent needs, these students need strong counseling and direction, but because the colleges have more incentive to enroll students than to graduate them, they rarely get it. As one colleague said to me, “Depending on which door a student enters during registration, he’ll be enrolled in English 101 or in the Adult Learning Skills Program.” Some of the students who end up in remedial or vocational programs become the victims of a cruel hoax; learning to cut hair or read at a fourth-grade level, they think they are getting a college education. Those who land in English 101, meanwhile, may find that the credits they earn are not accepted at the four-year college of their choice, or that they have difficulty transferring because at some campuses the so-called capstone courses needed to complete a sequence (as in mathematics or science) are offered only sporadically, if at all.

As one of the teachers quoted above suggests, City Colleges courses are frequently watered down to keep from failing large numbers of ill-prepared students. A colleague in the business department told me that some CCC accounting classes cover only half the material that is normally presented in the same course at UIC. When I was teaching English I was aware of at least one instructor who taught the techniques of doing a research paper without having his students actually research anything. As a consequence of this sort of teaching, the University of Illinois at Urbana stopped accepting English 102 credits from transferring City Colleges students.

In many classes the instructor teaches to the level of the least competent student, thus boring the others. I once heard a colleague of mine defend this practice by saying, “The City Colleges aren’t Harvard, y’know.” And among some faculty–especially those who came to City Colleges from high schools–there is actually an aggressively anti-intellectual attitude, which is passed on to their students. Thus the poor reputation of the colleges is strengthened and reinforced in the community at large. Chicago Enterprise, the magazine of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, called it a “make-believe college,” and many students and faculty must ruefully agree.

What must be done to save the City Colleges? First, we must do away with self-defeating contradictions by reclaiming their basic purpose, which is to provide college-level courses to qualified students who want to transfer to senior colleges. Focused on baccalaureate education, the colleges can plan the proper sequence of courses that transfer students need to take, develop and maintain the standards necessary for transfer, and work closely with senior colleges and universities to ensure a smooth and relatively trauma-free transition. This is the work the colleges were set up to do and the work the faculty is trained for.

Second, entrance tests should be mandatory for all college-level programs. This is hardly a revolutionary idea; indeed, it’s the law. As Chapter 122 of the Illinois Revised Statutes says, “Students allowed entry in college transfer programs must have ability and competence similar to that possessed by students admitted to state universities for similar programs.” It’s interesting to note that in the one program in which entrance testing is required–nursing–some 85 to 100 percent of the program’s students consistently pass their state nursing boards.

Third, and perhaps most important, the current funding practice must be abolished. The General Assembly must provide a lump-sum yearly budget for CCC to allow for rational long-range planning. Doing away with credit-hour reimbursement would remove the colleges’ incentive to go body hunting to generate state aid. In addition, the colleges would no longer have to offer specific kinds of educational programs to receive the highest levels of reimbursement; colleges could respond more directly to the real desires of their communities.

Am I suggesting here that the vocational and remedial missions now served by the City Colleges–the missions that Mayor Daley and Chairman Gidwitz want to expand–be abandoned? Not at all. I am merely suggesting that the City Colleges are not the right place for them.

Proponents of vocational education frequently claim that it produces quick results: teach a student the specific knowledge required for a job and he’ll be able to be productive in very short order. However, this theory is profoundly flawed. It’s the same concept that the Commission of Seven tried to promulgate back in 1932, the same system that’s been used in Europe for a long time to separate social classes. But the world is different now. You have to be intelligent to be able to run computers and deal with the math and written instructions necessary in today’s industrial economy. And today, when you teach a specific trade or technique you are really teaching obsolescence.

In recent years we have repeatedly seen people put out of work precisely because they had only one kind of skill; when the need for that skill disappeared, so did their jobs. In the future, vocational training will have to be extremely responsive to quickly changing technology and markets. The traditions and structures of the academic world–tenure, core curricula, and so on–are almost antithetical to such needs; at City Colleges it takes anywhere from one to four years to introduce a new course.

Nor do the colleges have the money necessary to provide students with cutting-edge technology in the classroom. What they can provide is a solid general education, so that students learn to think critically, to read efficiently, to write clearly, to solve math problems accurately. These are the skills that will enable the workers of the future to adapt to a wide variety of job situations. If the city wants to provide more specific vocational training, it should establish an entity separate from CCC in direct partnership with business, whose advice and counsel, as well as experience and finances, could produce training that would truly fill employers’ needs.

As for remedial education, this in most cases means adult literacy programs. Illliteracy needs to be attacked along a wide front, for it is the end product of not only academic deficiencies but also a constellation of social factors. A separate educational structure, one seriously directed at solving this problem, would bring specialists in reading, in job training, in individual and family counseling. Such a distinct institution would focus on monitoring the various competencies of each of these students at every level, something the Orfield/Langan report rightly calls for. And perhaps, as the report suggests, local community groups might be engaged to provide their expertise within the communities in which their clients live.

In the short run, this plan would certainly cause dislocation. Probably not more than 10,000 to 15,000 students–if that–would currently qualify for transfer education, and this would mean a concomitant diminution of faculty. But it would also mean that the college-level courses could be located at only one or two of the eight CCC campuses. Perhaps the city could make use of two or three of the remaining campuses to house adult literacy activities, while another one or two buildings might be the sites for occupational training run by the city in conjunction with business and industry. As a money-saving move, all other City Colleges facilities should be sold to the highest bidder. The concept that each neighborhood in the city must have its own individual college is no longer valid, if it ever was.

I would add one more point. The City Colleges of Chicago desperately need new leadership–beginning with the current chancellor and including all of the vice chancellors. None of the people currently in these posts have academic backgrounds in higher education; generally their degrees are in primary or secondary education, and they are unfamiliar with the content and the processes of higher education at the transfer level. (Many administrators at CCC these days, including Chancellor Nelvia Brady, come from the Chicago Board of Education.) Presidents and vice presidents at the individual campuses, with only one or two exceptions, lack solid academic degrees and experience in higher education.

There needs to be a thorough housecleaning from the august offices of the colleges’ central administration to the administrative chambers at each of the local campuses. Only then can the City Colleges become what they once were and what they desperately need to become again. For as the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider, and access to higher education continues its precipitous decline, we need a revamped city college system more than ever before.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.