July 17th, 2012

DISCUSS: Are Community Colleges Working Effectively?

John Tulenko produced the above piece for PBS NewsHour in late June; the piece examines remediation programs at community colleges, which Stan Jones of Complete College America — among other experts — argue might be costing U.S. taxpayers upwards of $3 billion per year.

Each year, more and more students enroll in community colleges, and each year, it seems to hold a bigger piece of the higher education landscape. We wanted to know — are the programs generally effective? Obviously, “effective” can have a broad definition in this case; in general, we left that up to the individual authors below. We did encourage them to think along the lines of preparing students for their future careers, however, as one measure of “effectiveness.”

Take a look, and please feel free to visit other discussions we’ve hosted on this site. You can offer your own thoughts on the topic in the comments.


In This Discussion

Kay McClenney
CCSSE

We need to improve the success rates.
George Lorenzo
The SOURCE

This is an unprecedented time for CCs.
Sara Goldrick-Rab
UW-Madison

What types of investments are we making in CCs?
David Baime
AACC

It’s about more than just the workforce.
Maria Flynn
Jobs for the Future

CCs need to respond better to employer needs.
Anne Kress
Monroe Community College

It’s all about the ‘90 percent.’



Kay McClenney, Center for Community College Student Engagement

We need to improve the success rates

Kay McClenney is Director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement and a faculty member in the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at The University of Texas at Austin. The Center conducts the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) and has now surveyed nearly two million community college students at over 800 colleges in 50 states. McClenney also directs the Center’s Initiative on Student Success, a long-term student focus group research initiative supported by the MetLife Foundation and Houston Endowment Inc.

Absolutely, yes, community colleges are effective — and disturbingly, at the same time community colleges are not effective enough to meet the current and emerging needs of individual students and their families, communities and the nation.

Yes, community colleges have long been effective at providing access to postsecondary education for millions of Americans who otherwise would not have had that opportunity. Yet, while the colleges still value open access, there are access-limiting choices now being made by college leaders — eliminate summer school, cap admissions, cease serving students that need the lowest level of developmental education — that are prompted by severe budget cuts, by poor results, or by reconsidered priorities.

Yes, community colleges are a crucial American resource in responding to economic conditions and workforce needs. They re-train thousands of displaced workers for new careers; prepare the preponderant majority of the nation’s first responders; and provide customized training for local and regional employers. But there is an evident skills gap in the U.S., where even as unemployment hovers around 8%, thousands of jobs are unfilled because of shortages of appropriately trained workers. Clearly, colleges must realign programs to close those gaps.

Yes, community colleges serve nearly half of all undergraduates in the U.S. But far too few of those students persist to achieve the educational outcomes that would change their lives and their families’ lives for generations to come. By six years after college entry, only 46% of community college students have earned a certificate or associate degree, have transferred to a 4-year institution, or are still enrolled. Improving success rates is and must be a top priority for a growing number of these institutions.


George Lorenzo, The SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends and Strategies

This is an unprecedented time for community colleges

George Lorenzo is Senior Writer, Editor and Curator of The SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies.

Open admission policies and reasonable tuition rates are two of the many wonderful aspects of community colleges. Anyone with a high school diploma is accepted. These students have a decent chance to make ends meet financially as they pursue a worthy education at any of our nation’s community colleges. An exception to this, however, is in California right now — where there are serious state budget cuts and overcrowding issues that have sadly resulted in students getting locked out. In almost every other state, however, if you want to earn an associate degree or a certificate, community colleges are ready to serve. Students who learn how to take advantage of the numerous student services community colleges offer and have a strong desire to complete college can earn a two-year degree and then transfer into a four-year college or university. These days, without a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, the odds of earning a decent wage, for most people, are substantially reduced.

So, community colleges, who are hosts to 44 percent of all U.S. higher education undergraduates, are great, uniquely American institutions that give us countless opportunities for advancement, especially during tough economic times.

In recent years community colleges have gained meaningful support— from the federal government and from a good number of philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation — to develop important initiatives geared toward helping students earn credentials that have labor-market value. Completion by Design, Achieving the Dream, Next Generation Learning Challenges, Complete College America — these initiatives, and many others, are all being driven by dedicated education professionals, many of whom work at community colleges, who sincerely want to make a difference in our country’s education status, which ultimately equates to a more productive American workforce and a better economy.

In many ways community colleges are in the midst of an exciting and unprecedented reform movement. You can follow a lot of what’s going on at the two leading community college organizations: The American Association of Community Colleges and The League for Innovation in Community College.


Sara Goldrick-Rab, UW-Madison

Success is all about the personal and social investments we make in them

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies & Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. Her research on college access and success has been recognized by the William T. Grant Foundation’s Faculty Scholars Award and the National Academy of Education’s postdoctoral fellowship. In 2009 she was lead author of a Brookings Institution blueprint used to craft President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative. She directs the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, an experimental evaluation of the impact of need-based financial aid on college graduation.

From economic transitions, rising ambitions, changing family structures, and globalization, to civil rights movements, geographic mobility, and an ever-increasing life span, the United States has changed dramatically over the last 75 years and much of that change is reflected in the trajectories of our community colleges. The nation’s pulse, these fundamentally local institutions are designed to quickly respond to our needs, and to grow and change as we do. This is the best and the worse of what community colleges are all about. They must be “all things to all people” while reflecting all of the contradictions inherent in our desires.

For example, consider the ever-lasting discussion of who should attend college, with what preparation, and at what cost? While we continue to debate these issues in our classrooms and legislatures, community college leaders must every day open their doors and teach. Our whims of the moment, be it specific kinds of job training, the latest yoga craze, or rising standards for transfer credit, fall on their doorsteps and they are forced to respond. Responsiveness is, after all, their primary job.

So whether community colleges are deemed “effective” in the current climate depends on what we expect them to be effective at doing. Their success should be measured relative to the personal and social investments we make in them.

Research suggests that community colleges perform well at expanding college attainment rates for students who otherwise wouldn’t attend college at all. These are the vast majority of community college students in urban areas like Chicago, where there are many college options but few truly affordable ones. On the other hand, for a much smaller fraction of students, attending community college might not be the best option, since it appears to prolong the time to bachelor’s degree completion. Does that make them “ineffective” in any overall sense? Given the relatively small fraction of individual and state resources they receive, and the broad benefits we reap (consider, for example, that in many rural areas they serve as both educational institutions and cultural centers, and in urban areas they become magnets of college opportunity for entire communities), I don’t think so.

We have a habit of scrutinizing our institutions for problems before turning that same attention on ourselves. If we want community colleges to do something differently, it would behoove us to begin with a transparent, national discussion about what postsecondary education means, and what we will commit to meeting our objectives.


David Baime, AACC

It’s about far more than preparing the workforce

David Baime serves as Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Research for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). In this role, he directs the national advocacy efforts for the nation’s 1,200 community colleges and their students.

Community college leaders enjoy the recognition their institutions are receiving. This focus derives from the fact that more Americans need more higher education and related training than ever before. Community colleges are the sector of higher education best positioned to deliver higher education to the broad public because of their low tuition, physical accessibility, accountability, and flexibility. Indeed, over the three years spanning the height of the Great Recession, enrollments rose by almost 21% — a remarkable figure considering the existing infrastructure.

But stiff challenges exist. These include continued, deeply counterproductive budget reductions; an economy difficult to forecast; a dynamic, competitive higher education landscape; and an underperforming K-12 system.

Change is afoot. Developmental education, i.e., elevating students to college-level readiness, is in the throes of transformation. Improved assessment of incoming students and finer-tuned, more flexible pedagogy is already making a difference. In many places developmental education is being tightly integrated with degree and certificate courses.

Community colleges are also addressing developmental education by cutting it off at the pass, working hand-in-glove with high schools to ensure that incoming students are better prepared. This is being done by helping with curriculum, providing professional development, and — in many cases — doing some of the teaching through dual and concurrent enrollment programs.

A variety of cost efficiencies are being implemented. Some have been necessitated by the recession. Greater efficiency is also developing through regional cooperation between colleges, including four-year and private institutions.

Community colleges have always cultivated close relationships with local businesses. Despite reports to the contrary, this has not increased during the economic downturn; it has always been there. But officials are gaining sophistication in the use of labor market information to predict employer needs. Entrepreneurship also helps – i.e., creating demand by providing skilled works.

Accountability efforts are vigorous. AACC has embarked upon a Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) that is designed to help institutions demonstrate their value to stakeholders and to improve performance through benchmarking and analysis. External accountability is increasing too, in the form of performance-based funding, which is gaining in sophistication.

Lastly, in this election year the role of community colleges in creating good citizens should be recognized. This is reflected in curriculum and more visible, campus-wide activities. Indeed, community colleges should never be regarded simply as instruments for preparing the workforce. That is an essential role but far from their only one.


Maria Flynn, Jobs For The Future

CCs need to more effectively respond to employer demands

Maria Flynn is vice president for Building Economic Opportunity, Jobs for the Future. Maria leads JFF’s work to help low-skilled adults advance to family-sustaining careers, while enabling employers to build and sustain a productive workforce.

With more and more jobs requiring education or training beyond high school and the cost of higher education skyrocketing, more individuals are turning to community colleges as a place to earn their first postsecondary credential or to learn skills that employers need right now.

As a result of this growing demand, many community colleges have stepped up to serve as valued partners in their regions’ economic and workforce development efforts. For instance, Macomb Community College in Michigan and Owensboro Community & Technical College in Kentucky work closely with their local employers to develop programs that meet current skill demands. The programs include design elements that have been proven to bolster student success such as increased student supports and accelerated learning approaches.

However, community colleges need to implement new strategies to more effectively respond to employer and labor market demands. Just two weeks ago, an employer complained to me that it was too hard to partner with their local community college because of the time it takes for the college to get a new program approved and implemented. The employer felt that by the time the college was ready, the company’s needs were already changing. As a result, the employer is likely to turn to another provider, such as a for-profit institution, to serve as its training provider. I fear that this is a common situation. In order for community colleges to be effective, they need to be agile and responsive. One recommendation is for college officials to engage in regular dialogues with their area employers and use high-quality labor market information (LMI), including data from emerging real-time LMI labor market information sources, to identify what certification requirements and skill requirements are currently most valued by employers. More information about this approach can be found here.


Anne Kress, Monroe Community College

It’s not the 10 percent you do see; it’s the 90 percent you don’t

Anne M. Kress is President of Monroe Community College, a comprehensive two-year college in Rochester, NY, that serves over 35,000 students annually. She has special interests in topics relating to student preparation, access and success; global education; workforce development; technology; and the intersection between traditional liberal education and essential 21st century learning outcomes.

Recently, the Aspen Institute offered up its take on the nation’s top 10 percent community colleges as it kicked off a competition for the inaugural “Community College Excellence” prize. The institute relied on the analysis of data (drawn primarily from IPEDS) to compile the list, which somehow manages to exclude several states completely and which does not include MCC at all. Now, at the risk of seeming “sour grapes-y,” I have to say that as much as I love data (and I LOVE data), when it comes to the work we do, it simply doesn’t tell the whole story. At their very best, community colleges are so much more than the sum of their parts, and while some of the work we do certainly can be quantified, much of what we do cannot for a simple reason: at our very best we’re about the business of changing lives, opening doorways, deepening experiences, and engaging learners. The whole story is often a hard fought, lengthy, and epic one involving if not a cast of thousands at least a cast of dozens. And, unlike a data report, this story is why you work at a community college; it’s the narrative that keeps you going on and coming back for more. So, my question in response to the Aspen Institute list is this: what can’t be captured in the data?

In the past few weeks, I’ve played MCC tour guide for trustees and presidents from other colleges, state and national political leaders, and potential donors. Each of these trips around the world of MCC has left me with another glimpse of the epic journeys that make up the day to day life of our students and our college. In a Nursing classroom, I saw our amazing students “save” our human patient simulator from death by anaphylactic shock — and then heard that some of these same students were themselves saved by emergency loans to meet child care and transportation needs. I walked in on an English professor teaching Shakespeare in one of our most high tech classrooms — and heard her credit the room’s engaging 21st Century environment with improving student retention in a class about a 16th Century author. I hung back as two of MCC’s remarkable, confident student leaders beamed while talking with a tour group about their experience at the college, sharing how much they had grown while here. I had a hallway conversation with a PSTF alumnus who thanked me on behalf of the community for all MCC does to provide law enforcement with high quality and consistent training — and retraining — and for valuing their work. I listened as another alumnus shared that he would not have found his path to service in public life, a path that has led to the office of lieutenant governor, were it not for MCC and smiled as he recounted, all these years later, life lessons from his time at the college.

Could data capture these stories? Perhaps indirectly. Certainly, when 98 percent of our Nursing students pass their licensure exams, it says something about the quality of our program, but it doesn’t really say what makes our program, faculty, staff, and students so special. When more students are retained in a course, it is impressive, but that observation doesn’t show what they’ve learned, what they’ve struggled with to stay in the course and how their faculty have struggled right alongside them, how they’ve been engaged and moved from passive to active learners, how this one experience might change their futures: their plans, their goals, their lives. The data sits on top of the depth of these stories like the proverbial 10 percent of the iceberg you see that masks the 90 percent you don’t.

As I said, I love (LOVE) data. It helps us measure, benchmark, improve, understand, and account; it lets us stand back, review, and decide. But, in the day-to-day work we do, it’s the other 90 percent that makes the difference.


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