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The Humanities, Arts, and Education

Advancing Research on Humanities Education in the Nation’s Community Colleges

Given growing national attention to community colleges—particularly to the professional and vocational training they provide—the Humanities Indicators convened 22 experts to discuss how to measure the state of the humanities in this sector.

As an opening question, participants were asked how they would define “community college.” The consensus seemed to be that all institutions classified as “associate’s colleges” in the Carnegie Classification should be included—regardless of their status as public, private, or for-profit institutions.

From that foundational question the conversation turned to which data might be useful for understanding the humanities in community colleges. On this subject a sharp division emerged among participants. While the majority felt the first priority should be to provide data that demonstrate the size and scope of the humanities in the sector, a sizeable minority preferred to focus research energy and attention on data that could demonstrate the value of the humanities to leaders in the sector. The prevailing sentiment of the majority group was that simply demonstrating the substantial presence of the humanities in community colleges would be a significant achievement and more doable in the short term.

Working from the premise that near-term efforts should focus on creating a picture of the field in community colleges, participants reviewed available data sets and some of the taxonomies used for benchmarking data in this sector. While several participants observed that state-level data could offer detailed insights into students’ paths through the educational system, staff from the National Endowment for the Humanities (the sponsor of this research project) expressed a clear preference for nationally representative data.

Discussion followed on the value of efforts to measure learning outcomes, as well as some of the risks (such as the challenge of properly measuring the skills and difficulties students bring to the classroom). The relationship between the humanities and the workforce (work being an end goal for students and a potential impediment during studies) also emerged as a fundamental issue for this sector. Key student topics that would be of interest to participants include demographics, financial support, time spent working outside college, and the general flows of students between the two- and four-year levels (either as transfers from one sector to the other or through students in one sector taking courses in another).

Comparative information about faculty members in the humanities and other fields is also of considerable interest to participants, who would like to see data on faculty credentials, course loads, and employment status (including full-time/part-time status, rank, participation in a collective bargaining unit, and—for faculty employed “part time”—the total number of college employers).

Beyond basic statistical questions, participants assessed the feasibility of supplementing statistical research with a more open-ended survey of community college leaders to assess their impressions of the current status and future health of the humanities at their institutions. Strong reservations were raised about this mode of research, both because presidents often are not engaged with these sorts of questions and because a survey that required written responses was likely to receive a limited response rate (particularly if it was narrowly focused on the humanities). A significant portion of the meeting participants argued that the first step should be to get a sense of the landscape of humanities activity in the community college sector before opening up larger questions with college leaders.

Staff members at the Humanities Indicators are currently testing a survey instrument to measure the number of students, faculty, and courses. We hope to field a survey on the shape of the humanities enterprise in this important sector in the coming year.

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