ERIC Identifier: ED304197
Publication Date: 1988-12-00
Author: Curry, Jennifer
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Junior Colleges Los Angeles CA.
Institutional Distinctiveness: The Next Item on the Community
College Agenda. ERIC Digest.
Community colleges play a distinct role in higher education. Their open
admissions policies, low cost, and the great variety of programs available
contribute to the unique status held by community colleges across the nation.
The role they assume within local areas and regions, however, depends a great
deal on their ability to set their programs and services apart from those
offered by all other postsecondary institutions in the area. The ideal is an
institution that is perceived as offering something of value that other
institutions in the local area or service region do not.
As Townsend (1989) points out, all colleges offer academic programs. In order
for a community college to be distinctive in this regard, it must offer programs
that other institutions in the area do not or that differ in emphasis or
structure form other colleges' programs with the same name. All colleges also
have faculty. For a community college to establish an identity based on its
faculty, there must be a measurable or a perceived difference in the nature of
the interaction between faculty and their students.
This digest will discuss reasons a community college should evaluate and
emphasize its distinctiveness, how to go about making such determinations, and
what to do with the knowledge.
WHY EVALUATE INSTITUTIONAL DISTINCTIVENESS
In this day of
increased competition for students, the features that distinguish colleges from
each other can be their strongest marketing points. Historical development,
educational purpose, and student body are just a few of the factors that
differentiate community colleges from four-year institutions and each other. As
community colleges fulfill their individual missions by responding specifically
to the needs of their community, programs, services, and delivery systems can
also establish the distinctiveness of community colleges (Hankin, 1989).
While the results of a search for institutional distinctiveness can serve as
the basis for marketing strategies, the process of discovering an institution's
unique characteristics itself uncovers new possibilities. As leaders choose to
develop and build upon what they have learned, they can create an institution
with an identity distinct from other community colleges and four-year
institutions. The search can open up new opportunities for educators to learn
about their college's strengths and weaknesses, and discover or develop its
niche in the higher education system. The process can also have the effect of
increasing the morale of the institution's members, while at the same time
improving its image within the community.
In today's changing world, it is essential to know what makes one's
institution exceptional, and investigating current programs and policies is a
start. In fact, without clear answers to questions of what a community college
does, what it should be doing, and what is unique about it, some researchers
believe that community colleges will find it difficult to thrive and adapt in
the future (Templin, 1989). Ratcliff (1989) goes farther in saying that "rapid
social, economic, and technological changes demand effective responses and
educational leadership from community colleges. Only with valid, reliable and
convincing information can the case for distinctiveness of mission and focus be
HOW TO CONDUCT A SEARCH FOR INSTITUTIONAL DISTINCTIVENESS
first step in the search is to examine the image that the community college
projects to the outside world. How is this image communicated both internally
and externally? The synthesis of the perceptions of the faculty, staff, and
students of a college and perceptions of the surrounding community creates the
identity of the college.
Efforts to determine the nature, existence, and
strength of an institution's unique aspects must consider both empirical and
perceptual dimensions of distinction. It is possible to demonstrate empirically,
for example, that a program is offered in no other school in the region. While
this sort of tangible evidence is valuable in establishing the unique identity
of a college, perceptions that are not supported by data are equally important.
If the public believes that students will receive more individual attention from
a more caring faculty at a particular community college, this perception becomes
an important part of the institution's identity. Once identified, these
perceptions can be developed into empirically distinctive elements.
The process of investigating a community
college's potential for distinctiveness involves searching for empirically
distinctive programs, ascertaining the perceptions of internal constituents
about the institution, and checking those perceptions with external
constituents. While looking for unique programs may be simpler and less time
consuming than determining internal and external perceptions of programs and
services, both are critical in the search for distinctiveness.
Information about internal and external perceptions of the college can be
found in a variety of sources, including articles in local newspapers, speeches
by college officials and community leaders, letters from former students,
correspondence from administrators at other colleges, and reports by state
agencies for two-year college education. Ratcliff (1989) advocates the
formulation of an overall view of what makes the college distinctive through an
o Institutional histories;
o Needs assessments;
o Institutional impact studies;
o Marketing research; and
o Strategic planning studies. The combination of these institutional
descriptors paints a usable picture of institutional distinctiveness.
Quanty (1989) considers the advantages and disadvantages of two different
ways of approaching the search for distinctiveness: 1) appointing a college
committee and 2) hiring an outside consultant to explore the issues.
An internal council is naturally more
familiar with the workings of the institution and members contribute the value
of their different views and experience to the process. A drawback with this
approach, however, is that the committee may have only a limited knowledge of
other higher education institutions and thus be unable to make the necessary
comparisons to discover what is actually unique in the institution.
An outside observer brings a fresh perspective
to the search for distinctiveness and has the knowledge necessary to make
comparisons with other institutions. A consultant, however, lacks the inside
information that is often crucial to understanding the inner workings of an
institution. Providing background information and having resources available for
the consultant can minimize this problem. A consultant's report should not be
viewed as the end of a search for distinctiveness, but merely as a starting
place in the process of developing a clear identity.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE RESULTS
While the process of undergoing
a search for distinctiveness is in itself worthwhile, effectively translating
the results into action is the obvious goal. Templin (1989) suggests that a
community college can best utilize the research on institutional distinctiveness
when it is related to the college's particular stage of organizational
development. For a college facing enrollment declines and staff and program
retrenchment, the principle objective will be to identify the defining
institutional characteristics that make the college needed within the community.
An institution with secure funding, stable enrollments, and a well-defined
mission can begin to build a reputation based upon identified strengths.
Research findings about institutional distinctiveness can be applied most
profitably when integrated with strategic planning and decision-making
processes. At this point, the results may contribute to the creation of a vision
of the institution that can be shared by all members of the college community,
to the development and communication of a positive institutional image, to
efforts to establish the interrelationships among college programs, and,
eventually, to the development of institutional integrity.
It is important to keep in mind that
institutional distinctiveness is only one part of a community college's
identity. Templin (1989 p. 60) points out that "it is only within the broader
context of a college's organizational development, its mission and goals, and
strategic planning processes that institutional distinctiveness takes on its
full meaning." As community colleges grow away from the notion of being
everything for everyone, finding their own niche in the system of higher
education becomes increasingly important. The discovery of what sets one college
apart from the others will ensure survival into the twenty-first century.
This digest highlights some of the topics explored in greater depth in New
Directions for Community Colleges, Number 65, A Search for Institutional
Distinctiveness. This collection essays, edited by Barbara Townsend, will be
published by Jossey-Bass in the spring of 1989.
Hankin, Joseph N. "What Makes the Community College Distinctive?" New Directions for Community Colleges; v17 n1 p11-22 Spr. 1989.
B. "How to Begin the Search for Institutional Distinctiveness." New Directions for Community Colleges; v17 n1 p35-44 Spr 1989.
Ratcliff, James L. "Getting the Facts, Analyzing, the Data,
Building the Case for Institutional Distinctiveness." New Directions for Community Colleges; v17 n1 p45-58 Spr 1989.
Templin, Robert G., Jr. "Using What an
Institution Learns in the Search for Distinctiveness." New Directions for Community Colleges; v17 n1 p59-67 Spr 1989.
Townsend, Barbara K. "A Search for Institutional Distinctiveness:
Overview of Process and Possibilities." New Directions for Community Colleges: v17 n1 p23-34 Spr 1989.