When President Obama proposed the American Graduation Initiative during a July 2009 speech at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., he brought “unprecedented” attention to community colleges, institutions that in some ways had previously been overlooked in higher education policy. As policymakers look for ways to train people for the jobs that are available and increase the number of adults who have earned a postsecondary degree or certificate, the role of community colleges in postsecondary education is being re-examined and, ultimately perhaps, redefined. This section of Story Starters focuses on the evolving role of community colleges, by gathering research, news articles and other resources that examine these institutions.
As spring 2012, there were just over 1,100 community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The vast majority (986) were public institutions, but there were 115 independent community colleges, plus another 31 tribal campuses. And, contrary to some perceptions, not all of these institutions are commuter campuses: More than 100 community colleges offer on-campus housing to students.
Public community colleges traditionally have offered among the most accessible and affordable options in higher education, with an average annual tuition in 2010-2011 that stood at $2,713 compared with $7,605 at four-year public colleges. These institutions, where the highest degree offered usually is a two-year associate’s degree, offer specific career training and education as well as some entry-level college courses to more than 12 million students—most of whom attend part-time and are disproportionately low-income, first-generation and academically underprepared.
The accessibility of community colleges is often cited as both their main benefit and criticized as their biggest weakness. By enrolling students who might not be able or inclined to pursue college otherwise, community colleges expand access to higher education, advocates say. But there are critics who argue that the disparate demographics between the student make-up of two-year colleges and four-year colleges essentially show that universities are being relieved of accountability for educating some types of students and that these groups are being deprived of full academic opportunities.
Regardless of perspective, nearly everyone who examines community colleges express concern over the low graduation and retention rates at these institutions. Just 60 percent of students who attend community college full time and only 40 percent of those who attend part time return for their second year, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The three-year graduation rate for all community college students was only 27 percent, the report showed.
As a result of statistics such as those, much of the research and policy debate regarding two-year colleges focuses on improving graduation rates. Some researchers say that part of the problem is measurement: Community colleges tend to enroll students with different academic goals and obligations than the students who enroll in the traditional four-year colleges for which the retention and graduation measures were principally designed.
Recently, the momentum has shifted in favor of the critics of current measures. In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Committee on Measures of Student Success submitted a report lamenting that federal measures of student achievement often disadvantage two-year colleges:
“Currently, the federal government gauges community college performance by calculating the percentage of first-time, full-time students that complete a degree or certificate in three or four years. … However ... the measure does not accurately capture the outcomes of the many two-year college students who attend part-time, take longer than four years to complete a degree, or transfer or re-enter the workforce without obtaining a community college degree … In addition, community colleges are open-access institutions and admit many students who need remediation, which lengthens their time to a degree.”
In April 2012, the Education Department released an action plan to enact the revised graduation rate data collection policies that the committee recommended, but did not set a date for revised measurements to be in place.
Because the vast majority of the nation’s more than 1,100 community colleges are largely public institutions, they also have had to contend with significant budget cuts in recent years as states have struggled to recover economically. These cuts generally have meant that community colleges have had to limit enrollment despite increasing student demand, raise tuition, or both. Such steps have been controversial—particularly in California—because of community colleges’ historical role as open-access, affordable institutions.
Some colleges, such as Santa Monica College in California and Lone Star College in Texas have either considered or enacted differential pricing for tuition, which charge some students different prices for the same courses. Such proposals to “ration” access to courses by prioritizing students who by various measures—whether it is previous grades or financial investment—are deemed more likely to earn a degree, led to angry protests at Santa Monica in April 2012 that scuttled that pricing proposal.
The federal government has offered some assistance. Congress did not approve President Obama’s 2009 proposed American Graduation Initiative, which would have been used, among other purposes, to establish competitive grants meant to foster innovation, improve graduation rates at community colleges and modernize community college facilities. But as part of the March 2010 passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, Congress authorized the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant Program. The program appropriated $500 million to community colleges each year for fiscal years 2011 through 2014. The first round of grants was awarded in September 2011. As part of his proposed 2013 budget, Obama requested an additional $8 billion over three years for job training programs at community college. — Jamaal Abdul-Alim, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
California’s community college system on April 9 unveiled Web-based “scorecards” on student performance at its 112 colleges. The new data tool is user-friendly and often sobering, with graduation, retention and transfer rates for each of the colleges and for the overall system, which enrolls 2.4 million students. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
From our high schools to CUNY, New York City's numbers are in—and they are terrifying. (The Village Voice)Read More »
California's community colleges -- the nation's largest public higher education system -- have lost so many teachers and classes that students are being driven away. (Oakland Tribune)Read More »
As certificates grow in number and importance, many educators are calling attention to what they see as an overlooked problem in the nation’s efforts to upgrade workers’ skills and deal with soaring higher-education costs: Federal financial aid goes overwhelmingly to students in traditional degree programs, while little goes to the many students in noncredit certificate programs who may need it more. (The New York Times)Read More »
If it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university. (NY Times)Read More »
Legislation will be introduced in the California Senate that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus. (The New York Times)Read More »
Berevan Omer graduated on a Friday in February with an associate’s degree from Nashville State Community College and started work the following Monday in his new job as a computer-networking engineer at a local television station, making about $50,000 a year. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
Experts say high schools, community colleges, and businesses need to work together to fill a gap of an estimated 600,000 jobs, largely in manufacturing, and cities such as Chicago are spearheading initiatives to do just that. (US News & World Report)Read More »
An age-old doorway into skilled trades and a middle-class life, the apprenticeship is making a comeback, rebounding after all but disappearing in recent decades in the face of a decline in union membership and dwindling demand for skilled labor. And as the economy changes, today's apprenticeships combine the chance for workers not only to master skills while earning a paycheck but to get a college degree at the same time. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
To get a quick snapshot of incoming students' knowledge, community colleges commonly use the computer-based Compass by ACT Inc. and the College Board's Accuplacer. Results are used to determine which courses students can enroll in as freshmen. When students fail those tests, they are put in developmental or remedial courses and often don't get out. Concerns over the placement process are rising as new research challenges its predictive value and student success continues to lag. (Education Week)Read More »
She is part of a growing number of community college students statewide who have been forced to travel long distances by bus, car and train to get the classes they need after budget cuts resulted in course reductions systemwide.(Los Angeles Times)Read More »
Spending on most new construction projects in the Los Angeles Community College District's $6-billion campus building project has resumed, virtually ending a moratorium that had been the centerpiece of efforts to reform poor planning, questionable spending and other flaws uncovered in the program. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
This article, inspired by a discussion at an American Association of Community Colleges conference, examines the question of how two-year colleges might compensate for the revenues they have lost in cuts to state and local funding. In addition to increasing the price of tuition, some community colleges are looking to raise funds in ways comparable to private, four-year colleges. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
This Chronicle article examines the American Association of Community Colleges’ report regarding how these institutions should improve performance, along with ties to high schools, the workforce, and four-year colleges. “The report makes clear that community colleges will need to collaborate with other areas of society, such as philanthropy, elementary and secondary education, government, and the private sector in order to achieve their goals,” according to the article. (Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
Acting upon the recommendations of its Committees for Measures of Student Success, the U.S. Department of Education announces its action to revise the way it gathers data regarding college graduation rates. Advocates of the change believe the new system will better account for students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
According to the article “about 100 students protesting a plan to offer high-priced courses at Santa Monica College this summer tried to storm into a meeting of the college's Board of Trustees on Tuesday evening.” The plan would have enacted a two-tier pricing plan that would have charged some students more for the same courses. Such proposals are being considered more frequently by institutions looking to compensate for cuts in state/local funding. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
This article covers two studies from the Community College Research Center that “found that as many as a third of students sidetracked into remedial classes because of their scores on standardized tests would have earned a B or better if they had simply proceeded directly to college-level courses.” (Hechinger Report)Read More »
This article examines the question of whether community colleges should prioritize access to courses, and—if so—how? The question has become crucial due to budget cuts that have inhibited the ability of these institutions to enroll all interested students. Rationing options up for debate at several colleges include prioritizing access based on which students seem more likely to earn degrees and differential pricing for different courses. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
This article covers the announcement of the first two-year school to win the Aspen Institute’s $600,000 prize. At the winner, a Florida community college, “more than half, 51 percent, of the college's full-time students, most of whom pursue associate degrees, complete them within three years of enrolling. (Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
This report from the AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges essentially offers a mission statement for two-year institutions as the nation’s economy still seeks to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. The report calls for improved measures and performance on student graduation rates, along with better ties to high schools, the workforce, and four-year colleges. (American Association of Community Colleges)Read More »
This report examines the potential financial costs to regions where the community college graduation rates are low. According to the report, “Cutting the dropout rate by half would generate substantial gains: the 160,000 “new” graduates would earn $30 billion more in lifetime income—and create an additional $5.3 billion in total taxpayer revenue.”Read More »
This study delves into the questions of how best to determine whether students who enroll in community colleges should be placed in college-level or remedial courses, and the effect remedial placement has on graduation rates. The authors find that high school grade point average is more useful when it comes to predicting student success. (Community College Research Center)Read More »
This final report from a committee gathered to re-evaluate how the U.S. Education Department collects data regarding student graduation rates for postsecondary institutions recommends ways the department could better account for transfer students other students overlooked by the “first-year, full-time enrollment” standard the department had used. Most advocates believe such changes in practice—In April 2012, the Education Department announced plans to enact the recommendations—would benefit community colleges, whose students often transfer. (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Has tuition increased at the community colleges in your region, and—if so—by how much? Did these institutions also undergo funding cuts from the state and local government? How have changes in funding affected enrollment?
- How do the two-year colleges in your region determine whether students are placed in college-level or remedial education courses? Do they use placement tests or high school grade point average/transcripts? How the graduation rates for students who start in remedial level courses compare to those who start at college level courses?
- Do the community colleges in your region have partnerships with local employers for job training (or retraining) programs for prospective employees? If so, how have these programs fared, for the students, colleges, and employers? If there effectively are no such partnerships, why not?
- What are the transfer rates for community college students in your region who want to attend four-year colleges? Do these institutions have effective “articulation agreements” (formal agreements regarding student transfers and the recognition of credits)? What do students say can be done to improve the transfer process?
- How do the student demographics at the community colleges you cover compare to your region overall? Have these enrollment percentages changed in recent years, and—if so—do they reflect changes in your region at large?
Achieving the Dream is a nonprofit initiative “dedicated to helping more community college students, particularly low-income students and students of color, stay in school and earn a college certificate or degree.” Nearly 100 community colleges nationwide are participating in the project.
The American Association of Community Colleges is the leading organization for the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges. The AACC provides guidance and advocates and lobbies on behalf of community colleges. Most recently, the AACC has worked to revise the reporting standards for graduation rate data and has initiated a 21st Century commission to address the changing roles of community colleges.
The Association of Community College Trustees is “a non-profit educational organization of governing boards, representing more than 6,500 elected and appointed trustees who govern over 1,200 communities, technical, and junior colleges in the United States.” One of the key services the ACCT offers is an executive search program that helps trustees find leaders for their institutions.
The Aspen Institute awarded its first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2011. Valencia College in Florida won the $600,000 award because of its comparatively high graduation rate and success helping students find jobs. The next prize is schedules to be awarded in 2013.
The Community College Research Center is a key resource for information and data about community colleges. The CCRC is based at the Teachers College, Columbia University. Their research regarding the impact of remedial and developmental courses at community colleges has been particularly notable.
The League for Innovation in Community Colleges is “specifically committed to improving community colleges through innovation, experimentation, and institutional transformation.” Founded in 1968, the League played a key role in helping to increase the number of community colleges nationally during the 1970s and currently is working to help community colleges improve their graduation rates.
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If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.