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3 Programs That Are Helping Community Colleges Reimagine Success

By Corey Murray

The American Association of Community Colleges’ new Implementation Guide reveals promising practices for 21st-century reforms.

When you got up this morning, did you do your 20-mile march?

If you had an opportunity to hear best-selling author and business consultant Jim Collins’ keynote at the 94th annual American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) convention in Washington, D.C., on April 5, you know what I’m talking about.

Perhaps best known for penning Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, a sort of success blueprint revered by many Fortune 500 CEOs, Collins spent Saturday evening talking to the nation’s community college presidents about leadership and what must be done to create a culture of reform on campus.

In a speech packed with rousing anecdotes, two ideas seemed to take hold throughout the weekend: Collins encouraged educators to get up every morning committed to making disciplined progress — or, as he called it, doing their “20-mile march.” He lauded educators for their selfless commitment to public service and left them with two parting words of advice: “Be useful.”

Walking the walk

That discipline was on full display the following morning, when more than 600 community college leaders packed a hotel ballroom to get their first good look at AACC’s implementation guide, Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future. (Read more about the guide on AACC’s Community College Daily.) The culmination of a year’s worth of discussion and research performed by more than 120 community college leaders, the document sheds light on what session emcee and student-data guru Kay McClenney describes as “the best of what is known” about community college reform.

AACC president and CEO Walter Bumphus said the guide, a follow-up to AACC’s 2012 report “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future,” represents a first step toward moving the recommendations set forth in that initial document — there are seven in all —“from ideas to action.”

During a panel discussion about the guide, a handful of community college presidents described how their colleges are committed to moving AACC’s reform agenda forward. Here are three of the dozens of examples you’ll find in the implementation guide.


Searching for a means to double the number of community college students earning a degree or a credential by 2020, Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, described a statewide initiative that focuses on rigorous coursework designed to lead to student achievement. Ralls said the state’s community colleges are using data to face “the brutal facts” about where improvement is needed, looking both internally, within specific institutions, and externally, at where colleges can better align with their business and philanthropic partners.

In presenting the guide to his board, Ralls called community colleges “the ‘seam’ in seamless education” and said the goal is “to create greater alignment that creates student success,” all while holding true to the open-access mission.

North Carolina community colleges engaged in listening tours and shared promising practices to achieve higher levels of “student access, success and excellence.” Ralls said it wasn’t the goal of the initiative to force specific practices on individual campuses — you can’t mandate that kind of success — but to highlight the “big themes” that colleges could latch onto in order to make changes relative to the colleges’ individual communities and missions.

Long Beach Promise

Long Beach City College president Eloy Ortiz Oakley described a partnership between his college, California State University, Long Beach and the Long Beach Unified School District. Oakley said it’s imperative for school systems at different levels to work together to align expectations and to “foster a culture of college-going from day 1.”

To open up clearer pathways to higher education for high school students and reduce the need for remedial education, the college dropped standardized placement tests in favor of demonstrated high school experience and it asks students to sign personal contracts committing to their educational goals and requirements. In an initial 1,000-student cohort working under the new model, administrators reported a 60 percent improvement in English coursework and a 30 percent improvement in math.

Student Success — Funding Formula

As president of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), Alex Johnson helped spearhead a statewide performance-based funding formula that would further incentivize a focus on student success. Instead of the traditional enrollment-based formula, the new model doles out a portion of funds (50 percent) to state community colleges based on completion rates, achievement milestones (25 percent) and a series of predetermined success benchmarks or “points” (25 percent).

Johnson says the formula was the result of an 11-month negotiation between community college leaders, policymakers and hired consultants. The hope is that the new funding formula will help Ohio, which currently ranks 38th out of 50 states in terms of college completion, move up the ranks. “My colleagues have bought into the system, and I believe the results will be very fruitful for our colleges,” he said.

As you return home from AACC’s convention this week and set about the hard work of driving change on campus, we hope you’ll return time and again to the 21st-Century Center for inspiration, resources and ideas to start your community college on its own 20-mile march.

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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