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Time to Get Serious About Redesigning Our Colleges

By Kay McClenney

To make the kind of lasting reforms that drive meaningful change, community college leaders must be prepared to break free of traditional conventions.

Everyone who works in a community college knows that the only authentic measure of a college’s success is the success of its students. And despite the truly significant contributions these institutions already are making to their communities and country, it is evident that we are falling short. College completion rates are unacceptably low.

Achievement gaps are unacceptably wide. The people we serve are the future of our country, and far too few of them are completing college credentials.

Paraphrasing MIT’s Peter Senge, we can readily capture the reality facing community colleges: Every college is perfectly designed to produce precisely the results it is currently getting. And so, fundamental solutions lie not in fixing students or in blaming college people, but in redesigning the system to produce the desired results.

The people we serve are the future of our country, and far too few of them are completing college credentials.

Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future: An Implementation Guide, the American Association of Community College’s companion resource to its 2012 Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future report, shines a light on four major challenges facing local colleges and national community college leadership: supporting work to design and implement pathways; leading a national working summit on college readiness and developmental education redesign, creating a seamless education and career system; and building stackable credentials and a national credentialing system. Dauntingly complex and inextricably intertwined, these tasks are critical to two additional major challenges posed in the Reclaiming the American Dream report: an intensified commitment to college completion and strengthened community college accountability.

What these four next-level tasks have in common is the recognized necessity of serious redesign. The typical educational experience for community college students is shaped by outdated institutional traditions, structures, and policies that result too often in students wandering into the college, wandering around the curriculum, and then wandering out the door.

Thoughtful redesign, based on a growing body of evidence, will entail creation of new academic and career pathways that are far more coherent, structured, and streamlined. Often, those pathways will begin at the pre-collegiate level — even in high schools — as students’ college readiness is assessed more effectively and their academic skill building significantly accelerated. Intensive engagement, college success strategies, and academic support will be integrated into the experience. These students will be brought as quickly as possible into a pathway or “meta-major” that connects them with content in their chosen program of study. In a substantially redesigned curriculum, they will see ahead of them clearly defined levels of learning, frequently featuring stackable credentials that they can accumulate over time — ultimately including associate degrees and expedited transfer pathways to the baccalaureate and beyond. With embedded advising, career coaching, and hands-on learning along the path, they will be well informed about the jobs, careers, and potential earnings that await them upon completion of each successive level.

The work required to ensure that every community college student has this carefully designed, world-class educational experience is, to be sure, monumental. Rather than tinkering at the margins, it involves busting the boundaries, breaking the rules, and redefining the roles that typify the higher education enterprise. It requires collaboration where there has been isolation. It requires ingenuity and relentless focus over time.

Best of all (or worst of all, depending on your taste for change), the new implementation guide offers practical examples of real community colleges, in diverse locations, with limited resources, whose people are actually doing this work of redesign. For all students. Seriously.

Kay McClenney

served as Co-Chair of the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges and as founding director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

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