A Review of Cohen, A. M. & Brawer, F. B. (1987).
The Collegiate Function of Community Colleges: Fostering Higher Learning Through Curriculum and Student Transfer.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

by Darrel A. Clowes

from VCCA Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, Fall/Winter 1988, 43-47

Copyright 1988 VCCA Journal


Most professors but only some practitioners are fascinated by the theoretical question "What kind of an institution is the community college?" In the current literature on this subject, one finds the community college defined as an institution that attempts to be all things to all people--the community, technical and junior college--or as a complex and synergistic organization searching for "communities" with which it can connect and interact, or as a single purpose institution dedicated to economic development, to preparation for careers or to life-long learning. Arthur Cohen and Florence Brawer, respectively professor and researcher, believe the community college was or is, and should be, an institution defined by its collegiate function with other activities built around this central concern. Their book is an effort to articulate and defend this proposition to the "leaders of community colleges and of the institutions sending students to them and receiving students from them" [xvii].

The Book

The thesis of this book is developed around the concept of the "collegiate connection" where "collegiate" represents aspects of the traditional liberal arts curriculum as well as its contemporary variant, the general education curriculum, and where "connection" represents the intellectual and academic linkage with traditions and curriculum of graded education from kindergarten to university. The community college's transfer function is seen as one element in this "connection." The metaphor is extended to suggest the "collegiate connection" as "the rudder that keeps the colleges within the mainstream of graded education, stretching from kindergarten to graduate and professional school"[xii].

A second central concept of the book is "to disaggregate the institution's provision of instruction in the liberal arts from the student's intentions and behaviors regarding transfer" [xii]. The authors insist the curriculum in use must be distinguished from the curriculum described in catalogs and bulletins; for them the true measure of the curriculum is how it is used by students. They insist transfer rates do not indicate the success of the curriculum or of the institution; they only indicate the chosen activities of students. That most students do not transfer does not mean the college-like functions should be abandoned. This "collegiate connection" must be maintained, they insist, not for those who transfer but for all the others who take courses at the institution and have a right to participate in higher education.

Cohen and Brawer's book is organized into nine chapters. Chapter One defines the "collegiate connection." Chapter Two traces the liberal arts in the community college. The next two chapters relate the liberal arts curriculum to community service activities of the institution and to the faculty. Chapter Five discusses the transfer function, and Chapter Six deals with assessment issues both on entrance to and on exit from the community college. Chapters Seven and Eight discuss support services to the liberal arts curriculum and to students. Chapter Nine is an effort to step back and consolidate the previous material and present recommendations for the "reconceptualization of the curriculum" and for improvement of the institutions. Supporting data from several studies are provided in the appendix.

This book reflects two major themes found in the literature of the community college. The first concerns literature on the curriculum which is dominated by the writings of Cohen and Brawer. Curriculum trends were identified and practices discussed in a series of monographs written by the authors and produced by the Center for the Study of Community Colleges and the ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges in the 1970's. These monographs were based on studies designed by Cohen and Brawer and funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their 1982 book, The American Community College, codified and extended these studies and identified four major functions of the community college curriculum. None of the functions--collegiate, career, community, or developmental education--was specifically identified as dominant or presented as the essential function of the institution. Yet in that book, and more clearly within the journal literature they produced, Cohen and Brawer argued increasingly for the importance of the transfer function and of general education. Now in this book, they come forward with an argument for the primacy of the "collegiate connection" and for reconceptualizing the curriculum around this connection.

It also reflects a second theme, the literature on mission or purpose of the institution. This is a more diffused literature representative of the continuing discussion of an evolving institution and illustrated by K. Patricia Cross's discussion of the colleges as "on the plateau," Towles and Clowes' historical review, and the discussions presented by Deegan and Tillery and George Vaughan and Associates. Within this theme, the book stands in clear opposition to the dominant contemporary arguments for economic development or career preparation or life-long learning as the primary purposes of the community college. Cohen and Brawer argue "the collegiate connection reveals the community college at its finest" (xii) and for the primacy of this "collegiate connection."

The authors discuss a series of significant issues dealing with the purpose of the community college and the direction of its curriculum. Its greatest strength lies in the distinctions it makes that allow one to see an issue in new ways. The most powerful of these is the image of the collegiate function as the connection with all of graded education. Another useful distinction is the separation of curriculum as declared by the college and curriculum as modified by student intentions and behavior. These are presented as two different things. One is represented by the college catalog, the other by the individual student's transcript. Cohen and Brawer show us that we must recognize both and consider the possibility that the transcript may be the more important curriculum document in the community college. Another distinction of value is the separation of the liberal arts from the general education curriculum offered in most community colleges.

Cohen and Brawer are at their best when they provide synoptic chapters bringing together and interpreting the vast data at their disposal. They give us significant additions to the curriculum literature through updates of earlier studies and reports of data from the ERIC files most would not find. The constant enumeration of exemplary practices is occasionally tedious but a solid contribution to the literature. From their present and past positions of responsibility with the ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges, they are uniquely situated to review the wide range of material and chose the best for us. However, their most significant contributions come in their synthesis of this information into meaningful images (connections) or assessments of broad fields. In this regard, their first chapter "Community Colleges as Gateways to Higher Education" and portions of the final chapter "Strengthening the Collegiate Connection" are real strengths of the book.

The book also has weaknesses. It is frustrating that the major concepts were often lost in the welter of examples. Chapters two through eight draw heavily on material from the ERIC system. The material presents an awkward writing problem because the material must be described in order to present conclusions or recommendations based upon it. Too often the presentation of materials takes the form of repetitive lists or descriptions, and as a result, the links to the central concepts of the book were often obscured. This decision to anchor the book in ERIC material led the authors to commit themselves primarily to a secondary literature; this resulted in a modest involvement with the primary monograph literature in the field. While their solid scholarship allows them to avoid major problems, they do end up writing a book loosely linked with the monograph literature. For example, the distinctions between the liberal arts and general education suffer from not drawing upon this literature. The distinctions offered are useful, but they suffer from ignoring the definitions and discussions contained in that literature (detailed by Conrad and the Carnegie Foundation).

It is difficult to assesses the work of established scholars like Cohen and Brawer whose numerous books and articles represent a high level of scholarship and contribution to the field. Therefore, one approaches this book with very high expectations but is disappointed. This book addresses issues identified as significant in the literature on the community college. The authors have added new information to our knowledge of the institution and its curriculum, and they have identified useful distinctions and images to aid us in understanding the institution. Unfortunately, they have also written a stylistically dull book that falls short of their previous writings in both style and content. Moreover, the central concepts are not consistently and fully developed. The book ends with a call for a reconceptualization of the curriculum, but it does not provide the sustained analysis necessary to allow that reconceptualization. It does provide new insights and a starting point for continued and probably fruitful analysis; it leaves sustained analysis to others. If ordinary scholars had written this book, it would be regarded as a success. From Cohen and Brawer, it is a contribution but also a disappointment.

I have the sense they care very much about the issues raised and rushed too rapidly into print. They call for a reconceptualization of the curriculum, but this book does not provide sufficient basis for that reconceptualization. It does, however, give us a good start in that most important direction, and that may be all one could reasonably ask.

Works Cited

Cohen, A. M. & Brawer, F.B. (1982). The American community college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Cross, K. P. (1981). Community colleges on the plateau. The Journal of Higher Education. 52, 113-123.

Clowes, D. A. & Towles, D. (1985). Community and Junior College Journal: Lessons from 50 years. Community and Junior College Journal 56 (1), 28-32.

Deegan, W. L. & Tillery, D. (1985). Renewing the American community college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Vaughan, G. (ed.) (1983). Issues for community college leaders in a new era. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

Conrad, C. F. (1983). At the crossroads: General education in community colleges. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

Carnegie Foundations for the Advancement of Teaching. (1977). Missions of the college curriculum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.


Darrel A. Clowes is Associate Professor, Community College Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.