Can Community Colleges Rise to the Occasion?

Last summer President Barack Obama proposed a 10-year, $12 billion initiative to increase significantly the number of community college graduates. He made the announcement at Macomb Community College, where he was introduced by Joe Iezzi, a 54-year-old Macomb graduate who had been laid off after working as a steelworker in the automobile industry for 23 years. When the auto-parts supplier he worked for closed down, Iezzi returned to college to complete an associate degree in heating and air conditioning, a credential that helped land him a full-time job at a local hospital. His case was a perfect example of the role community colleges could play in retooling the human capital of a dynamic economy as labor is shed from declining industries and is sought by growing sectors. The challenge, however, is compounded by a recession that depresses normal education funding and also leaves students wondering if jobs for which they train will actually materialize.

Nearly 7 million students are registered for degree or certificate programs in community colleges, yet only 35 percent to 40 percent of them complete a two- or four-year degree or a certificate within six years. The ambitious goals set for community colleges cannot be met without improving these graduation rates. Moreover, research has shown that community college two-year degrees and less-than-two-year certificates, especially in well-defined occupational areas, are as valuable, relative to the time it takes to earn those awards, as four-year degrees.

Improving success rates of community college students could also improve equity in higher education. Community colleges are open-door institutions, welcoming students turned away by many four-year colleges. They represent the country's commitment to providing postsecondary educational opportunities for almost everyone. Thus improving outcomes for community college students will have a disproportionate positive effect on minority and low-income students. There are, for example, more low-income African American and Hispanic students at Bronx Community College alone than there are in the entire Ivy League.

As illustrated by Iezzi's story, community colleges also have a tradition of preparing workers for jobs in their local labor markets. The colleges are local institutions, often maintaining close relationships with neighboring employers. For example, at Macomb Community College, a certified nursing-assistant program has been developed to meet the needs of local nursing homes and home health-care facilities. And Macomb has had a long history of working closely with automobile companies such as General Motors and Chrysler: For years the college maintained the largest auto-body-design program of any postsecondary institution in the country, serving the large local auto-design industry. By maintaining interactive relationships with local employers, community colleges appear to be able not only to provide education but to do so in areas of interest to local employers. These ties also help graduates find jobs.

And community colleges are cheap. While the $50,000-a-year college cost has attracted much attention, $3,000 for a full year is high for a community college. A student can attend Macomb Community College full time for less than $1,200 a semester. The community colleges also cost states less. In Michigan, the entire state appropriation to all 28 community colleges is about equal to the state support for Michigan State University.

Thus, community colleges seem well positioned to address a series of social problems by offering increased degree completion, greater equity in higher education, enhanced economic development, and effective work-force development tied in an interactive way to the needs of local economies. And the colleges appear to be able to provide these benefits at a relatively low cost.

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But can community colleges live up to this potential? Many of the apparent strengths and advantages of these institutions coexist with serious underlying problems.

First, the open admissions policy that provides access to a diverse student body also means that many students arrive poorly prepared academically. Nationally about 60 percent of first-time community college students are referred to remediation -- academic services provided to students judged to be inadequately prepared for college-level work. Fewer than half of those students complete their remedial program within three years. There is still a great deal of work to be done just to get these students into college-level courses, to say nothing of getting them to degrees.

Second, the majority of community college students work, many full time. Thirty-five percent of the students have dependents. Almost two-thirds of community college students attend part time, greatly decreasing their chances of completing. Students often leave college because their transportation fails, they run out of money, their babysitting arrangements fall through, a family member gets sick, they lose a job, they get a job, or their shift changes at work. Any college-completion strategy will have to provide both services and financial aid to reduce these barriers to success.

Third, community colleges typically serve first-generation college students. Without family members and friends with college experience, students are often unfamiliar with how college works. Indeed, they may not be aware of what is expected of them in the classroom or of the requirements in their program. Although some top-tier programs, such as nursing, are well structured with clear requirements, under the ideology of choice and open access, many programs have confusing options and electives.

At Macomb, the course catalog lists over 700 individual classes and nearly 200 programs in total. Providing options opens up many opportunities for students, but it requires adequate counseling and advisement to help students navigate the complexity. But because most state funding support is based on enrollment numbers, not measures of student success, community colleges -- while having enrollment and admissions policies to maximize participation -- lack the support services increasingly important for promoting student completion. Most institutions have one counselor serving thousands of students. At Macomb, 58 counselors and advisers serve the needs of 33,000 credit students and more than 15,000 non-credit students, far too few to make a significant difference in completion rates.

Further, community colleges cannot cause jobs to materialize in a recession. They do have a strong tradition of working with local employers to provide skills that are in demand. But the recession has made this function more difficult, and longer-term changes in occupational skills and labor markets are threatening the long-established community college work-force development role. Even trained workers cannot find jobs that do not exist. In Michigan, over 950,000 jobs have been lost since 2000, many of them in white-collar occupations. The conventional view that more education insulates one from major unemployment is not true in this recession. The local work-force investment agency, Michigan Works!, reports that over 12 percent of those currently unemployed in Macomb County have a college degree.

Employer demands for frontline workers began to change before the current downturn. In the past, occupational programs at community colleges were designed to place associate-degree graduates in jobs while the liberal-arts programs were designed for transfer students. But in areas such as health, business, and information technology, which have been mainstays for community college occupational programs, employers are increasingly favoring graduates with four-year degrees. Macomb's extensive auto-body-design program, for example, had withered even before the recent decline in the auto industry when the Big Three firms began making the four-year degree a prerequisite for hiring entry-level designers. As a result of this shift, successful occupational programs must increasingly provide opportunities for transfer to four-year programs.

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Students do understand the growing importance of a four-year degree. Transfer-oriented programs at Macomb are growing faster than occupational-degree programs, a trend consistent with national developments. However, students are often confused about what they need to do to prepare, and many four-year institutions resist accepting community college transfers. Research shows that bachelor's-degree aspirants starting at a community college are less likely to complete that degree than those starting at a four-year college, even after taking account of measurable characteristics such as high school grades and assessment test scores.

While national policy seeks to increase both two- and four-year-degree completion rates, one occupational area that has shown significant growth in community colleges has been in non-credit instruction. What has developed is vibrant customized training and non-credit work-force programs that may increase opportunities for such students but do not lead to degrees. Since the spring of this year, virtually all Michigan community colleges that have launched training programs with stimulus funds have done so on the non-credit side of their institutions.

And while policy-makers are looking to community colleges as a lower-cost route to a better-educated population, that "advantage" also means that these colleges have fewer resources with which to address the academic, social, and informational challenges facing their students. This situation has only been exacerbated by the effects of the recession.

More than any other sector of higher education, community colleges are dependent on state funding, and in many states, enrollments have risen (they often do during economic downturns) while state support for the colleges has fallen. As a result, many community colleges are in effect turning away students, not by rejecting their applications but rather by advancing the deadline for registration or simply by limiting the sections of the popular classes that students want to take. The colleges that do try to enroll all students who show up have fewer resources per student to invest in instruction and student services. These developments will clearly make it more difficult for community colleges to increase their graduation rates.

To be sure, many colleges could do a better job with the resources they have, and indeed there is variation in graduation rates and other measures of success among colleges with similar funding levels and student characteristics. Nevertheless, community colleges, which have the fewest resources, work with the students who face the greatest barriers to success.

In the end, community colleges do have the potential to play a central role in the economic recovery, in promoting educational equity, and in providing a foundation for long-term economic growth and prosperity. But the ambitious goals set for them by the administration, state governments, private funders, and educators can only be realized if the colleges and the states that fund and regulate them can bring about some fundamental changes.

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The problems that we have identified provide a road map to community college reform. If colleges are overwhelmed by students with weak academic skills, new approaches need to be developed to quickly get students into college-level courses. Services must be provided to help students address the many academic and social barriers that they face and to help students understand and navigate the complex college environment. Colleges need to simplify and consolidate many of the programs and courses they offer to reduce the need for extensive and complicated guidance and advising.

Community colleges also need to clarify their role in the changing occupational landscape. What is the future role of a two-year occupational degree or a shorter-term certificate? At least colleges must improve the connections between credit and non-credit programs to widen opportunities for students in the booming non-credit work-force arena. And community colleges need to strengthen their relationships to four-year colleges to make transfer more effective. Some states are allowing community colleges to confer a limited number of bachelor's degrees, and many colleges have invited four-year colleges to give courses on their campuses. Macomb Community College maintains a university center complex where eight partner institutions maintain upper-division and graduate programs for over 3,300 students -- many of whom are also taking community college classes.

Around the country one can find interesting initiatives to address each of these challenges. Those efforts need to be encouraged and studied. But the difficulties are systemic. Improving one program or one institutional feature will have little overall effect. Over the last two decades, many community colleges have become adept at raising money to pay for discrete initiatives and programs, yet fundamental problems remain. The type of improvement now expected of the colleges will only come with more comprehensive changes in the way colleges operate and are organized, funded, and governed.

Will new funding produce better outcomes? The administration's proposed community college initiative would inject a little over $1 billion a year into the community college system. That's a large sum, but it increases by only about 2 percent the $42 billion spent annually by community colleges. In a recession, it will be tempting for colleges to try to use these resources to replace lost funding. Throughout the country, in education programs at all levels, Recovery Act money has been used to stave off or reduce cuts, rather than to promote reform.

Fundamental improvements can only come about if all of the stakeholders take this opportunity to rethink the functioning of community colleges within the context of a changing landscape of higher education and of the economy at large. Such a deliberation needs to ask how community colleges should be funded and by whom, and to decide what can be expected of them and how much society is willing to pay for those outcomes.

If there is a reason for optimism, it is the realization that these institutions have been neglected and ignored in the past. Abundant attention, discussion, research, and resources have been lavished on a handful of elite private and public flagship universities while the public has misunderstood or been ignorant about community colleges. If the current conversation can lead to a long-term shift in attention to the colleges, the discussion and revelations may be painful, but they will be necessary if community colleges are to realize their potential in the transformation of the country's economic well-being.

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