Peter Riley Bahr, a U-M expert on community colleges, has completed the rare journey from community college student to Ph.D. scholar.
Bahr spent a portion of his early college years at a community college, and he began his research career at the state office that administers all of California’s community colleges, which collectively constitute the largest postsecondary system in the world.
Besides conducting a great deal of research on the rapidly evolving community colleges, he is teaching a new course this semester on community college students.
“More than any other type of higher education institution, the community college draws students of incredibly varied backgrounds, pursuing academic objectives that are equally varied,” says Bahr, an assistant professor of higher education at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.
Michigan’s community college enrollment has soared by 49.8 percent since 1999-2000 even as K-12 enrollment has fallen by 104,090 students or 6 percent.
Michigan community college enrollments have grown to the full-time equivalent of 161,223 students as economically displaced workers change careers and as new government incentives, including a new GI Bill, encourage people to return to school.
More growth is expected. President Obama came to Macomb Community College in Warren last July to detail his plans to invest $12 billion to meet the goal of helping 5 million more Americans earn degrees or certificates from community colleges by 2020. Meanwhile, the new GI Bill, which took effect last August, is expected to greatly increase the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who attend college.
Bahr’s research has looked at issues such as:
• College hopping: While most analysts look at community college students’ upward transfer to four-year colleges, Bahr found that 27 percent make lateral transfers from one community college to another within six years of first entering college, resulting in substantial undercounts of the number of students who complete degrees.
• Classifying students: Although it is widely recognized that students in community colleges vary greatly from one another, Bahr is taking this understanding one step further by developing a classification scheme based on students’ behaviors. In a recent study, Bahr classified 165,921 community college students into six categories: transfer, vocational, drop-in, noncredit, experimental and exploratory.
“When we think about how to improve the state of the economy, especially the economy of southeastern Michigan, the community college is at the center of the action,” Bahr says. “Whether we’re seeking to help the daunting number of people who have trouble with reading, writing or math, or providing job skills to the unemployed, or retraining laid-off workers or offering a cost effective way for young people to transition to a four-year college, it’s the community college that is going to provide those services.”
Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, on her greatest passion: “Working to improve the physical and virtual accessibility to all of our community, regardless of individual physical or mental challenges.”