A Community College Teaching Career: 1. Why Consider A Community College Career?

1. Why Consider a Career in the Community College?

“Faculty in community colleges have a role that is different from both K-12 teachers and university faculty. Teachers in elementary and secondary schools survive in a culture where decision making occurs at the top level and trickles to the classroom. In some instances, teachers are engaged in decision making, but standards for grade level work or expectations for earning a diploma may occur at the local board of trustees or even the state superintendent of instruction. University faculty are expected to conduct research, and for that reason, often spend less time in class with students. Community college faculty land in the sweet spot where the focus is on teaching and assistance to students, and have the responsibility to develop and propose solutions for curriculum, degree requirements, and other aspects of student learning rather than have those solutions come down from top administrators. Faculty in community colleges also have responsibilities and professional duties with respect to governance and academic matters through the academic senate which has been described in several ASCCC publications.

Many faculty who apply to work at community colleges know these differences in roles and expectations, which is why they select community college teaching as a career. We want people who make the choice to work with our students and focus on teaching and who also understand their responsibility for contributing to academic programs and success of the college. However, their role does not end at making the choice to focus on teaching and engage our students. Our faculty are also committed to one another through our further responsibilities to improve not only our own teaching but that of others, as well as to improve the overall college experience for students.”

Beth Smith, Academic Senate for California Community Colleges President



With over a thousand two-year colleges across the nation, candidates who broaden their job search to community colleges, dramatically expand their career options.  This essay offers information on  characteristics of two-year colleges and their students, professional opportunities and challenges for faculty members, the peculiarities of the two-year-college job search, adjunct teaching, and resources for the job search. Approximately 22% of all full-time faculty members teach in two-year colleges. As they do so, they can have an impact in the lives of their students and in their communities.

General Characteristics

The first public community college, Joliet Junior College, opened in 1901, and since then community colleges have placed publicly funded higher education, open to all, close to home. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, as of 2020 there were 942 public two-year colleges in the United States,  359 tribal colleges and 73 independent colleges . These institutions may be called junior colleges, tribal colleges, technical colleges, two-year colleges, or community colleges. (The terms “two-year college” and “community college” will be used interchangeably throughout this document to refer to all two-year colleges). Also known as “the people’s colleges,” community colleges are regionally accredited and award the associate degree as their highest credential (Pierce 3). Although each community college has its own set of unique goals and culture, they all share the primary goals of access and service through open admissions and charging low tuition. 

Most community colleges (58%) are characterized as “small,” enrolling under 4,500 students, while only 8% are “extra large,” with enrollments of 15,000 students or higher (Engaging 23). They are likely to be located in rural (37%) and urban (39%) areas, with the remaining 24% in suburban areas (Engaging 23). These colleges have two primary functions: either serve as a transfer institution, through lower-division general education and major preparation courses leading to an associate degree and/or transfer to a four-year college or university, or prepare students for a career immediately upon graduation, through   education and training in selected occupational fields leading to job entry, advancement, retraining, and certification and to associate degrees. Community colleges also have a basic skills and adult education function, through  courses that prepare  students for college-level work). English courses and foreign language courses fulfill requirements for students on each of these paths.

As two-year institutions serve almost 12 million students per year, they have an enormous impact on American higher education. The California Community College System alone is composed of 109 colleges, serves more than 2.5 million students, and is the largest system of public higher education in the world, according to the system’s Chancellor’s Office Web page. A recent United States Department of Education analysis conducted by Clifford Adelman shows that roughly two-fifths of traditional-age students (18-24) began their college education at the community college; three-fifths of students over the age of 24 entered college at the community college. As of 2020, the American Association of Community Colleges reported that about 11.8 million students were enrolled in two-year colleges, 6.8 million in credit-bearing courses. In 2017-2018 these colleges awarded over 852.504 associate degrees and 579,822 certificates. Community college enrollment is expected to grow as the overall US population increases.

Who attends a two-year college? The most recent data from the American Association of Community Colleges indicate that the average age of the community college student is 28 and about 47% receive financial aid. Currently, more women than men enroll in US colleges, and this is even more true of two-year colleges, where 57% of the enrollees are female and 43% male. Although most community college students are in the middle socioeconomically and educationally (Leinbach), Adelman’s review of United States Department of Education data finds that students from the lowest quintile socioeconomic status are increasingly more likely to begin postsecondary education at a community college. Thirty years ago, Adelman notes, 44% of these students started their coursework at community colleges; today 55% do. One reason is that community colleges are more affordable: the average cost of tuition and fees at a public two-year college in 2005-06 was $2,191, as opposed to $5,491 for in-state tuition and fees at a public four-year college and $21,235 at a private four-year college (Baum and Payea). Two groups of minority students are more likely to begin college at the two-year level, Hispanics (55% of whom attend community colleges) and Native Americans (57% of whom do), whereas African Americans (47%) and Asians and Pacific Islanders (47%) are slightly less likely to do so, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Please see: “College Enrollment Rates” by The Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

Community College Teaching: A Rewarding and Challenging Profession

Most two-year-college faculty members find their work deeply satisfying. A recent national survey of community college faculty members found that 73% report experiencing “joy” in their work and 71% believe their work is meaningful (“Views” B10). Teaching is a mission, not just a job, because community college faculty members change lives every day. But this work is not for everyone, as Anne Breznau has argued in an ADE Bulletin essay: “It is for the committed teacher who wants to help all kinds of people make better lives for themselves. It is also for the teacher-citizen who is ready to become involved in creating a better institution within the culture of a local community he or she is willing to call home.”

As Breznau’s phrase “all kinds of people” suggests, students in the typical community college class have a wide range of ages and life experiences and varying degrees of academic preparation. Students’ ages may run from 16 to 80. Some are still in high school, some are ready to transfer to a university, and some hold advanced degrees. While this diversity is exciting, it also makes community college teaching more challenging. Instructors must be flexible and creative to meet these students’ needs. A one-size-fits-all pedagogy simply does not work at a community college. As an English instructor chairing a hiring committee commented in an interview, two-year colleges need experienced teachers “who [can] go into the classroom with a bunch of twenty-five people with twenty-five different interests all going in different directions and get them focused and keep them focused” (qtd. in Twombly 432).

In addition to being diverse in the broadest sense of this term, community college students are three to four times more likely than their four-year counterparts to need remediation, to delay their entry to college after graduating from high school, to enroll part-time, to be single parents, to have children, to work more than thirty hours a week, to be financially independent, and to be the first in their families to attend college–all factors that make them “high risk” (Engaging 5). In fact, almost half of all new community college students are “underprepared” as measured by institutional placement assessments (Engaging 6). At the same time, however, two-year-college students tend to be goal oriented and highly motivated. Research shows that teaching them can be tremendously satisfying because they are more likely to be engaged in their education in terms of spending more time studying and writing papers, working harder to meet instructors’ expectations, attending class regularly, and coming to class prepared (Engaging 5).

Faculty members at community colleges are expected to be proficient in the use of instructional technologies, tThey often have the opportunity to develop supplemental websites for their classes, teach online, develop independent study courses, and so on. While new technologies are transforming higher education in general, they have a particular impact at community colleges as they contribute to making education accessible and accommodating of students’ different learning styles.

A Unique Opportunity: Relations with K-12 Systems and Four-Year Transfer Partners

 Community colleges typically develop close relationships with  local K-12 systems, other colleges in their districts, and nearby universities. Usually, a community college has an identified set of “feeder districts” whose students attend that college because of its proximity. In turn, the community college sends the majority of its transfer students to a core group of four-year institutions. It is thus in the best interests of the community college student for the institution to have close professional ties to these transfer partners. Alternately, of course, some two-year colleges are regional campuses within a university. Transfer from the two-year college is articulated through program design and agreements with the partner college.

Two-year-college faculty members are occasionally  asked to do outreach to the local K-12 systems both to articulate coursework and to publicize programs to recruit new students. Many community colleges sponsor visitation days for high school students and even for elementary school students, especially those in less advantaged districts, to encourage student goal setting to include attendance at the community college. Faculty members open their classes for visitations, which can build enrollment while serving the community.

Instructors may also be involved in meetings with the faculty of their disciplines at nearby four-year institutions to assist articulation and transfer efforts for community college students. Some colleges have assigned outreach administrators to facilitate such meetings. In other cases, they are faculty generated. Such meetings can facilitate networking and participation in area grant proposals, student exchanges, and curriculum development.

In sum, the community college program needs close alignment with its transfer partners at each end if students are to be well served. These considerations are unique to the community college and can foster very satisfying professional activities.

Your Role as a Foreign Language or English Instructor

Several aspects of community college teaching are clearly distinct from those of the four-year college.

  • Teaching load. Because teaching is the central role of a community college instructor, the teaching load at a two-year college is generally heavier than at a four-year institution. Fifteen units a semester is common, which translates into about four foreign language courses or five English courses a semester. Class sizes may also be larger than average. According to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, faculty members at public community colleges spend an average of 18.1 hours a week teaching and have 431 contact hours (the number of hours teaching multiplied by the total number of students enrolled in courses) a week, as opposed to an average of only 8.1 hours teaching and 287 contact hours a week for faculty members at public doctoral institutions (Cataldi, Bradburn, and Fahimi 31).
  • Absence of teaching assistants in the grading of papers and the offering of sections of introductory classes. Student assistants may be available for tutoring and small-group work, but practices vary.
  • Requirements for reappointment, promotion, and tenure. Evidence of teaching excellence, not research, is the means by which most community colleges award tenure and promote faculty members, at institutions where tenure and promotion are available. Except for two-year colleges that are incorporated into four-year university systems, which usually do require research and publication, research is viewed as an add-on after success in teaching. Faculty members at public community colleges report spending 79.8% of their time teaching but only 3.5% on research, compared with public doctoral university faculty members, who report spending 50.8% of their time teaching and 28.2% on research (Cataldi, Bradburn, and Fahimi 29).
  • Salaries. In many areas of the country salaries at two-year colleges are competitive with (and sometimes exceed) those of neighboring four-year colleges. The faculties of many public community colleges are unionized, and salary advancement is structured, based on years of service and on rank at some colleges. This may mean more regular increases than at four-year institutions, where a number of factors influence these adjustments and advancements may not be automatic. The most recent salary report from the AAUP shows an average salary of $91,949 for full professors, $74,847 for associate professors, and $63,996 for assistant professors–figures that vary according to the geographical location (“The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2019–20”)
  • Rank. Some institutions call all faculty members “Instructors.” At other colleges, academic rank (Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor) is determined by such factors as degree, promotion, and years of service.
  • Office hours. The number is often set by union contract. Five to ten hours a week are not unusual.
  • Opportunities for administrative roles. Foreign languages and English are often set in a division rather than in, for example, a College of Arts and Sciences, which is more common at the four-year institution. Two-year colleges often fill positions of division chairs or deans internally, allowing faculty members who aspire to administrative roles the opportunity to serve in a leadership role while retaining the right to return to a tenured teaching position if they choose.
  • Teaching assignments. Foreign language instructors can expect to spend the bulk of their time teaching the first four semesters of language study. In heavily enrolled languages, there will also likely be separate courses for conversation, culture, composition, introduction to literature, and language for business purposes. Film, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and comparative literature courses are possible as well. For English instructors, courses range from basic reading and writing and ESL courses to university-parallel composition and literature courses, honors courses, creative writing, technical and professional writing, and genre and survey courses in literature. As with the foreign languages, English faculty members may have the opportunity to teach film, cultural studies, humanities, journalism, and so on, depending on their background and training. Usually, however, new two-year English faculty members teach composition.

Continue to 2. The Hiring Process.