A closer look at community colleges

By Martha Parham

A recent article on the nation’s community colleges outlined some of the challenges facing the nation’s largest sector of higher education, calling them out as defensive underdogs and laying bare their less-than-perfect underbellies.

Showcasing students who were not able to navigate the often-complex processes that are systemically entrenched throughout traditional American higher education, the article focused on high dropout rates and low completion rates, and it advanced the stigma that community colleges are a punchline rather than an on-ramp to the middle class for millions of students each year.

The article glosses over the impact of intentional campus programs designed to shift negative narratives about community colleges and focus on the students themselves. Community colleges are built upon a model of higher education that was intended to serve wealthy, Caucasian men with rank and societal stature. That dichotomy alone is a paradox that requires community colleges to navigate within a structure of privilege to serve millions of students regardless of background, ethnicity, ability, or preparedness. And not simply to offer them a pathway to prosperity, but to ensure it is a pathway that maintains academic rigor and open access.

Sleeves rolled up

No one is more aware of the data trends than community college leaders. Falling enrollment numbers are concerning, not because of the impact on the colleges, but because we recognize the disproportionate impact of enrollment declines impacts minority students to a much greater degree. As our population shifts to a minority-majority, the lack of higher education will disproportionately impact the national job market and create a larger socioeconomic gap.

A reckoning for community colleges came more than a decade ago when the institutions themselves recognized the need for improved outcomes and implemented transformational programs to increase completion for both degrees and certificates. Community college advocates worked tirelessly to disrupt their own systems and find new ways to offer pathways to completion, redefine developmental education and hone in on closing attainment gaps. They did not shy away from the task at hand, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. That work continues today and is constantly refined as we learn more about what is needed and what is working. It is an iterative project with no end as community colleges continue to transform themselves to better meet the needs of their students.

Myriad student stories

And transform they do. We have heard countless stories from people that have benefited from the nation’s community colleges. From Tom Hanks’ now famous 2015 New York Post op-ed “I Owe it All to Community College” to the single, working mother who started a new career because she was able to access an affordable education at her local community college while working and parenting, community colleges transform lives. We are not perfect, and we have much more work to do, but I have yet to meet a community college leader who is not ready and willing to work to increase student success.

Together, our nation’s community colleges officially serve 38% of the nation’s undergraduates but that does not account for the more than 4 million students who are not even looking to obtain a degree, but to advance their career by earning credentials or certificates that provide them an opportunity to learn skills valued by employers. In fact, major employers are looking to community colleges to fill their workforce pipelines citing the need to diversify the nation’s workforce. At the local, regional and national levels, community colleges are economic engines that provide the skills needed to fill local jobs.

Better data

Not everything is quantifiable. For decades community colleges have fought to bring understanding to policymakers about the measures used when reporting data about and for community colleges. Workforce development programs are not calculated in federal datasets and none of the measures take community college student demographic into account. When measured using all entering students over six years and diversifying outcomes, the community college success rate is 59% compared to the federal IPEDS 25% for the same reporting period. It shows a much more accurate portrayal of community college students who are often older, working and may be the first in their families to attend college. Perfect? No, but a better indication of the real work happening on campuses today.

Every community college has thousands of stories of success. Students that have gone on to be award-winning actors, doctors, chefs, diplomats, elected officials and more – so much more. Their success is our success and community colleges will continue to work diligently to ensure that anyone that comes through our doors has the same opportunity to succeed.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Martha Parham

is senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.