Leadership & Governance

Community-College Advocate Urges 4-Year Colleges to Do More to Help Students Transfer

February 29, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, says one of the biggest barriers for low-income community-college students who want to transfer to colleges where they can earn a B.A. is the lack of financial support they get from the four-year institutions.

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The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

The program that Mr. Wyner oversees awards the biennial Aspen Prize for Community College Leadership. In this interview with The Chronicle, he explains why he continues to see the need to keep colleges focused on improvement.

Mr. Wyner, author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success (Harvard Education Press, 2014), also discusses the challenges of preparing a new generation of community-college leaders. The best way for reform-minded companies, foundations, and other outsiders to lend support to higher education, he suggests, is to “help colleges do what they need to do.”



GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Hi, I'm Goldie Blumenstyk. And I'm here with Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the College Excellence Project at the Aspen Institute. Josh, thanks for joining us today.

JOSH WYNER: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Well, glad to have you. I think most of the people who are familiar with Aspen's work with community colleges may know it from the Aspen Community College Prize. You've now done this for three years, three different periods already.

JOSH WYNER: That's right.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So when prizes get started — you and I have talked about this a little bit. You say that there's some value in them for the attention that they bring and the intensity that they bring to the process. But is there some point where that intensity and attention kind of wears off? And how long are you going to keep going with this prize?

JOSH WYNER: Yeah, well, I think every prize is different. I think some of them have purposes. It's first unmanned craft to the moon or to Mars. Obviously, once that's done, it's finished. With the community-college prize, we don't know how long we're going to keep doing it. But we are going to do it for a fourth cycle, we just announced.

And the reason is because we're still learning. Community colleges, I think, for the last decade have grown in their stature in a sense and the recognition of the importance of them as institutions. But, frankly, they're pretty young in their institutional-reform efforts. And so each cycle we do the prize, we notice that things have changed substantially. Just over the last two years, half of the top 150 colleges we're going to look at turned over, meaning in this latest cycle, 75 out of 150 colleges invited to apply for the prize — and those are the ones with the highest and most rapidly improving student success — turned over. We have 75 new institutions. That's —

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Turn over, meaning new leaders?

JOSH WYNER: Not new leaders. Actually new institutions. So every cycle, we invite 150 colleges to apply for the prize. And that's based on their data on student success. Just in the last two years, half of those institutions that made it onto the list this cycle weren't there last cycle. That suggests that things continue to change. And as long as we can learn what's happening to enable much better levels of student success, and as long as we start to see those practices vary and improve over time, I think we'll keep doing the prize.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So a few weeks ago, Aspen and a few other organizations helped put out a report from the Community College Research Center that talked about transfer rates from community colleges into four-year colleges. Obviously, transfers are the area where there's a great deal of student frustration because students don't get to transfer as easily as they want to. That report had some pretty troubling findings, particularly on economic disparities. Lower-income students were transferring at a much lower rate and receiving their B.As. at much lower rates. Have you thought about that a little bit? What's driving that?

JOSH WYNER: Well, I think the same disparities we see in transfer, we see across all of K-12 and higher education, frankly, which is that the status that you come into a school with, it often dictates the success you'll have in school. Some of that is underpreparedness. Some of that is the conditions that you have at home that enable you to study, the role models that may exist, that are, in fact, of folks who have succeeded in school before you.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: But if I read that report right, the rates by which students are getting certificates and degrees at the same level, the income disparity wasn't a problem getting through community college. It was, the problem seemed to be at the transfer level.

JOSH WYNER: Yeah, so look, there's very limited access to four-year schools for two-year students. One of the biggest problems we have is that only about a third of students make their way from a two-year school to a four-year school. And when you have constricted access like that, typically the folks who have better information, who are more organized, who may, again, have role models who have made that leap before them and obtained a four -ear degree, are much more likely to access the four year institutions.

The second thing, I would say, is that the four-year institutions that work with community colleges need to focus on providing equal financial aid to community-college students. Four-year colleges front-load their financial aid to attract the freshman class. And with the growth in community college students, they haven't apportioned some of their money to the incoming junior-year class. If you don't have equal financial aid, students who struggle financially aren't going to be able to make the leap as much as they might, even from high school to freshman year.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Yeah, I have to say, I've never seen a college make a major fund-raising campaign to support incoming transfer students.

JOSH WYNER: Well, we see that at the University of Central Florida in Valencia. They have an endowment to help fund students who make their way from a two- to four-year school. In fact, interestingly, in the first year of the Aspen Prize, Valencia won. They took the money that they won, which was $600,000, leveraged that into a several-million-dollar fund for students to pay for the University of Central Florida. In other words, the money doesn't stay on the Valencia campus. They realized that the biggest impediment to student success was finishing their degrees at UCF. And so they leveraged that to pay for that.

So you're right, though, that the financial campaigns at four -ear schools, typically, when they're for financial aid, are for incoming freshman.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: You deal a lot with leadership at community colleges. Obviously, it's the name of your institute. We're in this process now. It's been going on for several years, and I guess it's going to continue, a big generational shift in who the leaders are at community colleges. Is there something that you're seeing in this next generation of college leaders at community college that's different from the original generation, some of whom were, maybe, the first presidents at their colleges, or certainly came in as the colleges were first created?

JOSH WYNER: The shift is happening. And I guess, what I would say is that we need different qualities in leaders. Look, the student demographics continue to change. Technology availability, and whether to adopt technology, whether it's going to help students learn or help create efficiencies is growing every day. Vendors are at the door every day. The competition from the four-year sector is growing. And the state funding is being constricted. And finally, family wages are stagnant. You add all that together, and the economic model for any college, including community colleges, doesn't quite work the way it used to.

And so presidents need to be much more savvy about competition, about technology adoption, and about organizing their colleges to serve the students they have, rather than the students of yesterday. That requires a different set of leadership competencies.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: What's an example of one leadership competency that's actually different? Because I think people hear these phrases, but they don't always know what that means.

JOSH WYNER: That's a great question. I think change management is a huge issue. Community colleges are decentralized institutions, faculty own the curriculum. Departments own their curricula. They have long histories of operating in particular ways. And frankly, they're very conservative. Not politically, but they tend not to change easily. Understanding how to move an institution, not through your typical committee structure, at the pace that things have happened in the past, but understanding how to get everybody on board with urgency, to understand that things need to move. Understanding how to build strategic plans and implementation plans with deadlines, staying on top of that, and, frankly, measuring your success against a few defined goals are incredibly important characteristics that a leader needs today, that frankly, in the past weren't as important as some other things.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Well, one of the things we're seeing here at The Chronicle: the landscape of higher education is changing. There are a lot more, now, companies, foundations like yours and others, that are trying to have kind of an impact on higher education. Most of them haven't been that focused on the community-college sector. But I guess, I wonder, is there something that you're seeing with all this kind of investor money and corporate interest, and ed-tech startups, and the like, what could they do that would really have an impact at the community-college level? Is there something that these reformers, these so-called disruptors could actually make a difference?

JOSH WYNER: Well, a few things. And one is some of them serve on the boards of community colleges. And if they don't, they should think about doing that. Get yourself in the game. Understand what happens on the ground, because that will inform your philanthropy and your partnership. Second is have honest conversations. Sit down with the presidents and the program leaders in the sectors that relate to your work. And have honest conversations. If you're in the K-12 sector and you want to reach out to a community college, ask questions about how you can better prepare students for community college.

If you're in the corporate sector and you're not getting the talent you need, sit down and have honest conversations with the program leaders about what you need and whether they're delivering it or not. I think the conditions for honesty are hugely important. Often relationships, whether you're on a board or on an advisory committee with community colleges and the colleges generally, are sort of pro forma. I think we need to have much more honest conversations about what our common goals are and how the community college can deliver against those goals.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So it's interesting. You didn't talk about products that are going to come in and sell to these colleges.

JOSH WYNER: Well, that's true, too. I think, look —

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Maybe that's not what they should be doing. I don't know.

JOSH WYNER: No, no. Well, certainly corporations that are selling products, I would say, understand what the biggest challenges community colleges are facing. And really tailor your products to those challenges. Let me give you an example. In community colleges right now, there's a general recognition that there are too many courses and too many programs, and that those courses are not organized into programs that students can understand. And so they wander through a curriculum. Doesn't work very well.

I just heard that the average number of credits in Texas, for an associate degree, is 93.


JOSH WYNER: 60 is the standard. That's a 50-percent premium. That can't be good. So the question I would have is, how can you, as a vendor, help colleges do what they need to do, which is to help them develop clear pathways, communicate clear pathways to students, and align advising to those pathways. That's what some of the vendors out there — and I don't want to name names — but some of the vendors that, I think are doing very good work are doing, is that they're trying to address a real problem through technology, for example, that colleges have, not a problem that they invented in another sector and think they can just translate.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Got you. I don't want to let you get out of here without asking about the movement about free community college. Is that the best way to use scarce federal and state resources?

JOSH WYNER: Well, that's one way of thinking about it.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I asked you the provocative way.

JOSH WYNER: No, no, no. I tend not to think of it that way. Look, if we ask the question, Should we means-test admission to high school? And should people pay for public high school in this country, most people would recoil at the idea. We have decided that high school is a universal public good that should be paid for by the public and available to everybody. Social Security is the same thing. I think we've entered an era where college education looks a lot more like a high-school education and Social Security than it does like an antipoverty program, food stamps or TANF benefits, now.

So I think we have to rethink this question in keeping with what we've done historically. When something becomes so important that having a good life as an individual and contributing to society require it, we need to think about universality. So, yes, an economist would say, we have a limited number of public resources, and we should allocate them in a particular way.

A political theorist would look back at the history of high school, universal high school, universal Social Security, realize how long we've hung on to that idea, and how it's not political today, and say, the universality of the approach, in fact, is a societal recognition that this is not something that should be means-tested but should belong to everybody.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So that's a yes?

JOSH WYNER: That's a yes. I think that the notion of universal, free college education is an important one for us to consider. Important questions about how we pay for it, the extent to which we pay for it, remain. I'm not saying there are easy answers. But when I hear people talk about allocating sparse resources, I think the bigger picture, we're losing the forest for the trees.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Great. Josh, thanks very much for coming in.

JOSH WYNER: Well, thanks for having me. Good to talk to you.