The Case Against Upgrading Community Colleges to Universities

Ananth Prabhu, Sports Editor

The question still remains about whether community colleges should obtain university status. The answer dives far deeper than what I wrote on Feb. 7, 2023. It is a topic worthy of critical, moral and cogent debate while following several detailed intricacies along the way.  Requirements beyond expanding the curriculum exist for these particular institutions of higher learning to offer four-year degrees, also known as baccalaureate degrees. The overarching goal of the premise of university status for local community colleges is to increase greater access to higher education than already exists and increase human equity for those people who are inclined to learn beyond 100- and 200-level coursework.

As of 2023, forty-eight community colleges exist in Illinois. They are located in a combination of 39 districts throughout the state. Some districts have more than one community college. For instance, the City of Chicago is a district that contains seven community colleges.  All 48 community colleges belong to the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB).  Logically, you may consider the ICCB as a consortium that ‘checks up’ on each individual community college for standards being met, accreditation, services being offered, etc.  As a part of ICCB’s Mission Statement, their job is “to administer the Public Community College Act in a manner that maximizes the ability of the community colleges to serve their communities.”

Any tax revenue-dependent facility requires strong evidence and critical thought to change the current legislation. The Public Community College Act, also known as 110 ILCS 805, is a piece of legislation that defines status, organizes powers and duties, allows bonds, gives tenure, permits programs and facilitates taxation and annexations for all community colleges within state borders.  The Board of Higher Education Act, also known as 110 ILCS 205, is another imperative piece of legislation inclusive of all community colleges and state universities.  Community colleges are primarily funded by local property tax bills, and only the owner of an Illinois home may actually verify the line item cost of the annual property tax bill that supports the in-district community college.  According to Will County in Illinois, the “equalized assessed value of your property is multiplied by the tax rate for the tax code area in which your property lies.”  Furthermore, a percentage of that amount supports the local in-district community college. Therefore, you may be paying a different amount to your community college than your neighbors do because it has to do with the appraised value of the house that you live in. State university funding works differently by subsidizing the cost of education from state income tax. Therefore, there are legislation and taxation hurdles for community colleges to obtain university status.

Non-legislative criteria would be another hurdle to battle to obtain university status. The offered academic programs must be in a broad range and be equivalent to 300- and 400-level university coursework.  The coursework must be relevant to prepare students for the enrollment of professional degrees, such as Masters, Doctoral, Medicine or Law. As an example of this pursuit, community colleges typically have an assortment of health careers, and this trend will need to continue by offering proper instruction for Pre-Med degree programs and perhaps offering Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) training so students can be admitted to a medical school after the 400-level work is complete.

Another domineering non-legislative task is to increase the research capacity of a community college. For example, some community colleges offer opportunities to do independent experimental research. However, this is currently introductory-level research work just beneath the 300-level coursework. One specific example is doing up to three semesters of independent research in biology at Harper College or up to one semester of independent research at the College of Lake County. Apparently, some community colleges offer more opportunities than others. Not all community colleges are equal in terms of course offerings. Discrepancies exist even within the same category of community colleges.

A third non-legislative criterion would be expanding infrastructure. The amplified infrastructure could include the size of the campus, larger departments, more facilities and residential halls. Every expanded department must include more advanced technology, buildings to house that technology and privileges of using that technology to advance STEM. Perhaps, there would need to be more opportunities to publish undergraduate research by using advanced STEM practices.

A fourth non-legislative criterion is to meet requirements for accrediting bodies and continuously maintain that accreditation. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is currently the accrediting body of NEIU, Harper College, College of Lake County and nearly all community colleges and state universities in Illinois.  Furthermore, there are actually quite a number of specialized accreditation bodies that accredit various healthcare, education and technology programs at Harper College. According to the U.S. Department of Education at the federal level of government, the premise of accreditation allows for formulating assessment criteria and conducting peer evaluations to verify the meeting of the criteria. Furthermore, the institution must request being assessed by an accreditor, such as HLC, and the institution must meet all the criteria.

A tremendous amount of work and a very lengthy process is necessary for community colleges to obtain university status. It does not seem likely to happen in the near future or in the current decade. Community colleges can certainly try to upgrade all of the criteria previously mentioned. However, it must be further debated whether there is truly a need for such a ubiquitous upgrade for many community colleges to fall in line and be elevated to university status. Only time will tell if higher education institutions will be pushed to increase accessibility to more civilians. While the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was sufficient to push all academic work online for at least one full academic year until vaccines were ubiquitously available and obtained, there could always be another similar or greater catastrophic event in the future that alters higher education even more. In the meantime, people should be thankful for having a University Center if they live in select districts such as the Lake County district, the Harper district or the Joliet district because University Centers are as close to community college’s university status as Illinois residents have at the moment.