Community Colleges and the American Dream

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently released a significant commission report that begins to articulate a positive path for change for two-year colleges.  Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future, was issued by a high-level 38-member panel, and had the backing of major players in higher education: the Gates and Kresge foundations and the ACT and Educational Testing Service.

The report, which was featured in a story by David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal, does three important things in my view:

First, the report frankly acknowledges the shortcomings of community colleges in stark language.  “What we find today are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions.”  The report concedes that “developmental education as traditionally practiced is dysfunctional, that barriers to transfer inhibit student progress, that degree and certificate completion rates are too low, and that attainment gaps across groups of students are unacceptably wide.”  These problems may seem obvious to the casual observer, but for a commission of the AACC, a group which describes itself as “the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges,” to openly admit such failures is remarkable.

In some ways, the report is reminiscent of the acknowledgment by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker that the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, describing the failings of American public schools, was accurate.  While most of the education establishment took a highly defensive stance, denouncing A Nation at Risk as “the usual doom and gloom,” Shanker’s embrace of the report helped usher in a generation of school reform.

Second, the AACC report lays out some useful policy ideas for improving the system.  The commission advocates requiring students to participate in on-campus orientation, insists on first-semester advisement for a structured program of study, calls for embedding developmental education instruction into credit-bearing courses, and calls on four-year institutions to agree upon courses that will transfer without loss of credits. Many of these ideas are being implemented in individual institutions and states with success, but the commission is right to insist that boutique-style implementation is insufficient.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the report lays the groundwork for further creative thinking on the topic about some fundamental issues that need addressing.  While the AACC report does not take on some of these bigger issues, its insistence on the need for substantial reform and bold change plants the seed for other groups such as The Century Foundation’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, to ask some of the important questions that are directly connected to the failure of community colleges to perform as well as hoped.

Co-chaired by Eduardo Padron, and Anthony Marx, the Century task force is posing a number of questions, such as: Can we expect to provide equal educational opportunity when higher education is so deeply stratified – with the most selective four-year colleges educating 14 times as many rich kids as poor kids, while community colleges have almost twice as many poor students as wealthy ones?  Why does our system of public funding of higher education provide the fewest resources to the student most in need? Our highly segmented and stratified higher-education scheme was created for reasons of efficiency, but can we call a system where 65 percent of students who start at a community college fail to earn a degree or credential after six years either efficient or equitable?  These problems don’t lend themselves to  easy solutions or quick fixes, but if we truly want to reclaim the American Dream, we need to start thinking creatively about how to address them.  The AACC Commission, by frankly acknowledging the dire circumstances in community colleges, has helped opened the door for this robust discussion.

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