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5 Reasons It’s Time to Redesign Our Community Colleges — Right Now

By Corey Murray

As educators forge ahead with difficult reforms, a look back at just how essential the ongoing work of change on campus really is.

Nobody said change was easy.

When the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) first convened its 21st Century Initiative more than two years ago, it challenged the nation’s community colleges to produce 5 million additional college completers (degrees and certificates) by 2020.

To the casual observer, it might have sounded like a straightforward request. But AACC and the members of its 21st Century Commission were quick to point out that boosting completion rates on campus was more than a question of output. To truly increase the number of students achieving their academic goals, institutions would have to fundamentally redesign, reinvent and reset the entire community college model.

What began as a pledge to improve student achievement and fuel the nation’s economy, soon evolved into a deep introspection about the purpose and future of the nation’s two-year colleges. Everything from the open access mission of community colleges to remedial education to workforce training would demand serious rethinking.

Two years later, much of that work is ongoing. As expected, it hasn’t been easy. As educators forge ahead with important reforms — fighting tooth and nail for every dollar and every resource that promises to help make change a reality for their students, and in their local communities — it’s worth taking a step back to remind ourselves just how necessary this work actually is.

Need a little motivation to redesign the student experience at your community college? Jot down these eye-opening stats* from AACC’s original Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future report. Then ask yourself this question: Are you making progress?

  1. Failure to finish. Less than half (46 percent) of students who enroll in community colleges intent on earning a degree or certificate report having achieved that milestone, transferred to a four-year college or are still attending a community college six years later.
  2. Lack of direction. Ninety percent of first-year community college students say they value input from academic advisers, yet less than 30 percent indicate that an academic adviser played a role in helping them develop their academic goals, or create a plan for achieving them.
  3. Not college ready. Too many students start behind and stay behind when they enroll in traditional remedial courses. Research suggests some students can take three or more years to place out of remedial coursework into for-credit classes. What’s worse, 60 percent of community college students enroll in at least one noncredit developmental education course.
  4. Employment gap. Research suggests too many students enter college interested in pursuing careers with little or no prospects of employment. One study indicated that the nation’s community colleges produced enough graduates to fill 51 percent of jobs in eight in-demand career sectors seeking more than one million new hires. This, from a sector of higher education that enrolled nearly 8 million students less than four years ago.
  5. Underfunded.  Community colleges reportedly spend in the neighborhood of $13,000 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. That’s on par with a lot of K-12 schools and far below the $36,000 per FTE student that public four-year colleges and universities spend on average.

Want a few ideas about how to drive reform on campus? Don’t miss AACC’s Implementation Guide: Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future.

 *Statistics from Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future, American Association of Community Colleges, 2012. Report includes full citations.     

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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