New Higher Ed faculty's research examines community colleges' strengths, challenges

UNT may be a four-year research university, but it has a long-running dedication to community colleges. The UNT College of Education is home to the Bill J. Priest Center, named for the founding and longtime chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District.  The UNT College of Education also offers doctoral programs in Higher Education, which enroll many community college administrators seeking to advance within their institutions. Alumni of the program include leaders at many North Texas community college campuses, and are known across the state for their expertise.

Now, the UNT community college team has a new member, whose research dives into the role of community colleges as important sites for credential completion, civic engagement and strengthening our democracy.

Cliff Harbour came to UNT from the University of Wyoming and before that worked at Colorado State University. Early in his career, he was an academic dean at a community college in Durham, North Carolina. Harbour is excited to be in Texas, however, a state that he calls “an exceptional place for higher education.”

“In our business, people say there are two places to be if you want to work in a large, complex, growing higher education sector: Texas and California. In both states, public and private institutions range from open-access community colleges to research universities with international reputations. It’s all here,” he said.

And, Harbour added, “Texans really take pride in higher education, so that brings an appreciation for the work we do, but higher expectations as well.  And this is good.” 

Harbour’s current research projects focus on the Completion Agenda, community college civic engagement programs, and developing a stronger normative vision for community college education.

 The Completion Agenda

The Completion Agenda is a nationwide effort to increase graduation rates, especially in higher education. 

“Every college or university would like to improve its graduation rates,” Harbour said, “but this is especially important at community colleges.” 

Completion rates at community colleges are relatively low – lower than those reported for four-year colleges and universities. 

“But, there’s a reason for this,” Harbour said. “Traditionally, community colleges had a mission of access, and their role was to provide an open door to high school graduates without regard to their grade point average (GPA) or standardized test scores (e.g., SAT, ACT).” 

So, to attract these students and working adults and those who did not move on to full-time university study, community colleges offered courses day, night and weekends, and the tuition was affordable. For decades, community colleges were leaders in providing adults with new higher education opportunities, either in occupational fields or in university transfer programs. Today, however, community colleges must do more than provide access. 

“And we all get that,” Harbour said. “The challenge community colleges face now is how to improve graduation rates without decreasing access.” 

Harbour’s first strand of research is grounded on a critical analysis of leading completion reforms to assess where there are gaps in addressing student needs. 

There is a lot of important research available on community college rates, he said. This work, however, is grounded in the disciplines supporting it. 

“This isn’t a bad thing” Harbour said, “it just recognizes that different social sciences bring their own conceptual and methodological limitations, and educators must synthesize this work to make it more accessible for practitioners.”

Harbour, a former community college dean, noted that, “Community college leaders want programs and practices that they can use tomorrow, and the best research is not always presented in a form that facilitates this work. So we need to help explain and disseminate that work.” 

Civic Engagement

A second line of inquiry for Harbour concerns the growth of new community college civic engagement programs. These initiatives are focused on helping students develop the skills, dispositions and values necessary to be effective members of their communities. 

“At the end of the day, community college students will succeed in life because they have developed the capacity needed to identify and solve problems in collaboration with others – in the community, at work and in the political institutions that organize our democracy,” Harbour said.  “Yes, we all need to do more to eliminate barriers to access and improve completion. But when students leave us and go forward in their lives, they must be prepared to negotiate and advocate for themselves and their families. They need to know how to work effectively in a democracy.” 

Harbour’s research focuses on nationally recognized civic engagement programs and examining the leadership that makes them successful.

Normative Vision

Harbour’s third line of research involves the development of a stronger normative vision for community colleges. He began work on this project in his recently published book, John Dewey and the Future of Community College Education. Every college or university is guided by an institutional mission, he said, and an institution’s mission is established by the state legislature or its trustees. 

“But institutions need more than this,” Harbour said. “They also need a normative vision – a vision of what the institution needs to be about, ethically.  And this includes ensuring that all of us on campus accept responsibility for protecting and securing our democracy.”

The Higher Education Program Faculty and Students

As one of the newest faculty in the College of Education’s Higher Education program, Harbour is working with six colleagues who are teaching and mentoring students in certificate, master’s and doctoral programs. 

“These faculty are truly exceptional,” Harbour said. “They are at the very top of the field in their teaching, research and service. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of this group. 

“I was familiar with their work before I came to UNT. But now that I’m here, I benefit from their suggestions and observations, almost every day of the week.” 

As for the students in the program, Harbour was reflective. 

“You know,” he said, ”I’ve been working with graduate students – most of them community college leaders – both as a peer and as a professor in doctoral programs, for more than 30 years. What impresses me most about UNT graduate students – and I’m talking about those I have worked with – is that they are not just unusually bright and hardworking. They also have a sense of quiet confidence and professionalism that is often hard to find.

“For those working at community colleges, it’s clear, they know there are big challenges ahead. But, these people are looking for the challenges, seeking them out, and taking the measured risks associated with leadership. They are compassionate and care deeply about their students and their institutions. I’m not sure where they get that. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. But they are definitely players, and they will have a great impact that benefits all of us. And this is good.”