Community Colleges Not Up to 21st-Century Mission, Their Own Report Says

April 21, 2012

Calling the American dream imperiled, the American Association of Community Colleges issued a report on Saturday intended to galvanize college leaders to transform their institutions for the 21st-century needs of students and the economy.

Released here on the opening night of the group's annual conference, the report acknowledges the sector's historic growth and success but also argues that even so, far too many community-college students do not graduate. The study also found employment preparation inadequately connected to the needs of the job market, and a need for two-year colleges to work more closely with high schools and baccalaureate institutions.

"As they currently function, community colleges are not up to the task before them," it says.

The report, "Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation's Future," is blunt: The colleges must "redesign their institutions, their mission and their students' educational experiences" to ensure that they meet the needs of a changing society.

Labor experts predict that the job market will demand that more Americans hold postsecondary degrees or certificates.

To help college leaders "recast" their institutions, the report lays out seven recommendations. They include halving by 2020 "the numbers of students entering college unprepared for rigorous college-level work," and establishing "policies and practices that promote rigor, transparency, and accountability for results in community colleges."

The document also suggests tactics for carrying out each recommendation. The association plans to create a 21st Century Center that will help two-year colleges achieve their goals by providing them with "strategic planning, leadership development, and research."

The recommendations are the culmination of several months of work by a 38-member committee of college presidents, education-policy experts, and leaders of nonprofit groups. The panel set out to preserve the sector's central mission of educating underrepresented students but also to challenge institutions "to imagine a new future for themselves."

Walter G. Bumphus, the association's president, commissioned the report as part of a larger effort to provide an additional five million students with certificates and degrees by 2020.

"This is a brutally honest report," he said. "For years we have been focused on access, and now we need to turn our attention equally to student success. It takes courage to say we can do better."

Harsher Light

Usually praised for their open admissions policy and commitment to serving minorities and low-income populations, community colleges are shown in a harsher light in this report. A strong indication is that there is much need for improvement.

"Some people within and outside the field will look at this and say 'wow' and 'ouch,'" said Kay M. McClenney, co-chair of the commission and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. "But it's really hard to get better at things if you are not willing to look at the problems."

Aside from pointing to low graduation rates, the report says the way developmental education is usually carried out at community colleges is "dysfunctional," and that "attainment gaps across groups of students are unacceptably wide."

It further describes student and academic support services as often "inadequate" and describes an "uncomfortably large" gap between the skills students learn at college and those needed in the local work force.

"Whether on urban, rural or suburban campuses," the report says, "all of these factors undermine the aspirations of students."

The association says that for the two-year sector to continue to play a vital role in higher education, colleges must make difficult choices about which students to serve; what missions, if any, to abandon; and what academic services and programs to eliminate.

But colleges should not abandon their open admission policies, the report declares. Rather, institutions must find ways to keep their doors open while ensuring that more students graduate.

The Path Forward

The report also provides a glimpse of the community college of the future. The vision includes many of the practices already employed at successful colleges, such as requiring students to participate in orientation and advising and to complete a student-success course for help with studying and career planning.

Developmental education should be delivered in an accelerated format or embedded in regular coursework, the report says. But many of the recommendations put forth by the commission would cost money to put into effect. Exactly how community colleges would find that money is unclear.

Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, says it is unlikely that the funds community colleges have lost through state-budget cuts will be restored. "The real fundamental question," he says, "is, How can we serve more students at a lower cost with higher levels of success?"

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.

The kind of metamorphosis envisioned by the commission requires more than just "tinkering around the margins," Ms. McClenney says.

"Let it not be said that community colleges are setting the bar low," she says. "We are setting it real high."