This post is a condensed and slightly modified version of the 2016 Dallas Herring Lecture, delivered at NC State on November 14.
Two goals for U.S. community colleges have been prioritized in recent years: providing diverse individuals the opportunity to earn a good living and developing the talent needed to fuel regional economies. Achieving those goals is more important today than ever before. Every year, attainment of a post-secondary degree becomes more closely tied to an individual’s wages. Meanwhile, in regions throughout the U.S., there is a sizeable gap between labor-market demand for college-educated workers and the number of college-educated workers ready to fill those jobs.
Meeting the goals of promoting social mobility and developing regional talent requires that community colleges redefine their own success. Over the past 50 years, a national commitment to improving college access resulted in dramatic expansion in college enrollment, including exponential growth at community colleges. About 15 years ago, a national student success movement began. Recognizing that expanded educational access had not been accompanied by strong completion rates, a student success agenda for community colleges emerged, largely defining itself by the goal of increasing completion.
If community colleges are to meet the goal of ensuring broad access to a higher education that substantially benefits individuals and strengthens communities, another movement will be needed: defining community college success as access + completion + post-graduation success.
Community College 1.0: Access
Community colleges were originally designed to enhance college access by providing the first two years of a post-secondary liberal arts education for transfer students. They were later redesigned to include career and technical education aimed at fueling economic growth. With these twin goals firmly in place, community college access and enrollment expanded dramatically after World War II because of new federal student financial programs (namely, the G.I. Bill and the Pell Grant program).
With increased community college enrollment came an expansion in the number students who could not have otherwise gone to college – sizeable numbers of whom were academically underprepared – as well as increased numbers of course and program offerings. Today, at least 60 percent of community college students arrive underprepared and many urban community colleges offer more than 1,000 courses and over 100 programs of study.
Community College 2.0: Access + Completion
The 2.0 completion agenda aims to address the legacies of the 1.0 access agenda. Early efforts to improve completion among many community colleges – supported by student-success reform oriented organizations like the Gates and Lumina Foundations, Achieving the Dream, and Jobs for the Future – focused on underprepared students because they had the lowest levels of completion. Specifically, targeted efforts were made to reform developmental education, increase student academic supports, and address the many financial and other non-academic challenges faced by all students, especially those who entered community college underprepared.
Many of these reforms helped students complete developmental education and remain in college, but the early stages of the reform movement did not add up to increased rates of completion at most community colleges. Against this backdrop, a number of community college reformers have begun to tackle another legacy of community college 1.0: the proliferation of courses and programs.
Leaders from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, concluded that developing guided pathways to degrees is essential to improving completion rates. The central idea is that clear and sequenced programs of study, along with strong aligned advising from enrollment through graduation, can increase rates of degree completion. As colleges have begun to adopt this model, many are even embedding developmental education into guided pathways.
We know from the 2017 winner of the Aspen Prize – Lake Area Technical Institute (Watertown, SD) – how successful creating clear degree pathways can be. With roughly 30 areas of study fully integrated into programs that offer students no course choice, LATI achieves a graduation rate of 67%, more than double the national graduation rate. Guttman Community College in New York City, which offers similarly structured academic programs of study, also achieves completion rates well above the national average.
Community College 3.0: The post-completion agenda
As promising as the guided pathways movement is, its ultimate efficacy – and that of community colleges – depends on extending the definition of success beyond completion. When they enter community college, students aim not to complete degrees but to enhance their lives, most often economically, as the result of attending a community college. The question is, do they?
Community college success rests not with enabling completion per se, but with facilitating students’ post-college success. Some national leaders in the guided pathways movement recognize this, advocating for tying clear degree programs to what comes next in students’ lives. That means making sure that guided program pathways prepare students well for four-year transfer and for good jobs. Yet, many community colleges are implementing guided pathways almost exclusively as a completion strategy.
There are several reasons why making completion by itself the ultimate aim is a problem.
First, some students who attain degrees nonetheless fail to achieve their post-graduation goals. Recent research by American Institutes of Research scholar Marc Schneider demonstrates that many associate degrees have limited economic value in some labor markets. That does not mean these degrees cannot have value, but rather that they won’t unless combined with a bachelor’s degree.
Evidence shows that those who hold bachelor’s degrees typically earn higher wages than those with associate’s degrees. Unfortunately, on this measure of post-graduate success too, many community college students fail to achieve their goals. While surveys suggest that 80% of entering community college students aim to earn a bachelor’s degree, research shows that fewer than 20% do so.
Moreover, which degrees students earn and post-graduation outcomes appear to be tied to race, ethnicity, and income. A recent study by Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale shows that higher education programs within universities are highly stratified. Minority and low-income students tend to enroll in programs that offer lower labor market value, even within academic departments.
The same likely holds true in community colleges, where many of the most remunerative programs of study – such as nursing and IT – have selective admissions standards or prerequisites, requiring students to have math competencies, for example, at a 12th grade level or higher. Consequently, these types of programs are often under-populated by underrepresented minority and low-income students.
Community colleges must find ways to deliver high-value credentials in fields like health, manufacturing, energy, and information technology while reducing cost of delivery and helping more diverse students meet program requirements. To do that, community colleges will have to do even more to ensure their students’ post-graduation success.
Leading community colleges — including those that have won or been finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence — offer some examples of what will be needed.
- Reorient the culture: Community college presidents and other leaders must recast the college’s vision and goals to include employment with family-sustaining wages and successful transfer with baccalaureate completion. Acculturating community colleges to post-completion outcomes requires using new language and data to signify what matters. In committees, hallway conversations, and campus wide addresses, leaders must reference data concerning – and inspire conversations about how to improve – not just college access and completion of students in community college, but rates of transfer, bachelor’s attainment, employment, and wages among those who have left.
- Engage four-year colleges and universities to improve transfer and bachelor’s attainment: To achieve strong transfer success for students, community colleges need to collaborate with universities on creating clear program maps that contain course sequences, support services, and extracurricular activities. Articulation agreements provide a starting point for transfer, but deeper collaboration among faculty, program heads and institutional leaders is needed to ensure strong advising and seamless credit transfer in different majors.
- Engage employers to define common goals for talent development: Routine — and frequent — examination of labor market trends and post-graduation student employment outcomes should inform conversations between employers and community college program leaders. These conversations should help define what programs of study are offered, strengthen alignment between skills taught in college and those needed on the job, and ensure employer investments in program needs like equipment and scholarships.
- Align student advising systems to post-graduation goals: Student advising should be modified to focus on students post-graduation goals. Helping students select a program of study early on that is aligned to strong transfer and employment outcomes can not only improve rates of completion but also maximize chances for post-graduation success. Students need more help choosing and remaining on track to complete programs based on transfer requirements in major, employment prospects, post-completion earnings potential, and program cost.
Expanding higher education access and advancing degree completion continue to be incredibly important goals for the nation’s community colleges. But they are not enough. Adopting post-graduation success as a core purpose is essential if community colleges are to achieve their ultimate goal of delivering many more degrees that have value to their students and communities alike.
Click here to watch the full 2016 Dallas Herring Lecture.
Joshua Wyner is the Founder and Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. He is the author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do (2014), and has contributed to the Aspen publications Crisis and Opportunity (2013) and The Transfer Playbook (2016).