Community colleges seek to 'reclaim the American Dream'

Oct. 3, 2012
Commission on the future of community colleges makes recommendations for reimagining the 2-year institutions

The nation’s community colleges must be revamped so they can better meet the needs of students and the 21st-century economy.

That is the challenge that has been issued in “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future.” The report from the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges says community colleges, as they are operated today, are failing in efforts to adequately train students and provide the kinds of skilled workers needed for jobs in the modern economy.

“What we find today,” the commission asserts, “are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions. Community colleges, historically underfunded, also have been financed in ways that encourage enrollment growth, though frequently without adequately supporting that growth, and largely without incentives for promoting student success.”

The commission argues that community colleges are not given the resources needed to provide students the education and training they need. And the funding they receive is not always used efficiently.

“Community colleges are not funded at a level permitting them to perform the monumental tasks expected of them,” the report contends. “This is not the private pleading of a special interest, but the public statement of our conviction that today’s society is shortchanging this generation of community college students. At the same time, community colleges must make better use of the resources they have. Most of the necessary changes in these institutions and in student outcomes will come not through an influx of new or restored funding; rather, they will come through the leadership commitment and skill to reallocate existing resources to fund effective educational practice at scale.”

To more effectively serve the 13 million students that attend community colleges, the institutions must change:

  • from a focus on student access to a focus on access and student success.
  • from fragmented course-taking to clear, coherent educational pathways.
  • from low rates of student success to high rates of student success.
  • from tolerance of achievement gaps to commitment to eradicating achievement gaps.
  • from a culture of anecdote to a culture of evidence.
  • from individual faculty prerogative to collective responsibility for student success.
  • from a culture of isolation to a culture of collaboration.
  • from emphasis on boutique programs to effective education at scale.
  • from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning.
  • from information infrastructure as management support to information infrastructure as learning analytics.
  • from funding tied to enrollment to funding tied to enrollment, institutional performance, and student success.

The commission’s framework for overhauling how community colleges operate sets forth a plan it calls “the three Rs.”

  • Redesign students’ educational experiences.
  • Reinvent institutional roles.|
  • Reset the system to create incentives for student and institutional success.

Among the recommendations:

To redesign students’ educational experiences, community colleges should strive to increase the numbers of students earning certificates or associate degrees by 50 percent by 2020. At the same time, the colleges should preserve access to schools, enhance educational quality and eradicate attainment gaps associated with income, race, ethnicity and gender.

Community colleges also should by 2020 reduce by half the number of students entering college unprepared for rigorous college work, and double the number of students who complete developmental education programs and progress to successful completion of freshman courses.

The colleges should focus their career and technical education offerings on preparing students so they have the skills they need for existing and future jobs in regional and global economies.

To reinvent their institutional roles, community colleges should focus on meeting 21st-century education and employment needs. They should collaborate with other colleges, as well as philanthropic institutions, government entities and the private business sector to meet education and employment needs.

To reset the system, education supporters should urge investments that promote student progress and ensure rigor, transparency and accountability in community colleges.

View the entire report. (PDF file)

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