SEATTLE – Six influential community college organizations signed a commitment to boost student completion rates by 50 percent over the next decade  Tuesday, at the closing of this week's meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Along with the host group, the fellow signatories include the Association of Community College Trustees, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organization Development, and the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.
Aside from the blanket commitment to increase degree and certificate attainment, the pledge asks community college leaders, faculty and staff “to identify ways to help students understand the added value of degrees and certifications, and to help them progress toward their goals.” It also calls on elected officials “to create the policy conditions that engage, support and reward community colleges in their work to strengthen student success.”
Leaders of the six community college organizations said this public pledge was simply the first step in a long process to bring the “completion agenda” to the fore of their work alongside student access, long the primary focus of two-year institutions.
“Our objective in this initiative is to do everything possible to create a culture of completion at our institutions, whether it be administrators, faculty. trustees or students,” said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa. “We need to reveal to our students, particularly, the benefits of completing a credential or degree, but [also] the consequences of what happens when they don't. We've not been effective as an organization ... sending that message to our students.”
Some attending the signing ceremony expressed optimism that this unified “call to action” would send a strong message to legislators as they shape the education agenda. Others also viewed this as a sign that these community college organizations may make it a point to do more work together in the future.
“We're already a loose confederation of organizations serving community colleges,” said Mary Spilde, AACC board chair and president of Lane Community College, in Oregon. “This will help us link arms and work together. ... When I hear from our legislators, they tell me, 'When you come together unified, it really sends a message. But when you come together separately and sporadically, it just doesn't work.' ”
Though applauding the overall goal of the public pledge to student completion, some community college leaders expressed some restrained criticism of the locked-arm method in which it was signed, worrying that this could push the proposed voluntary national accountability system  hinted at earlier in the week to the federal level.
“I don't want to see 'No Child Left Behind goes to community college,' ” said one New York community college president, who asked that he not be identified. “I always worry about centralization, so there's some concern about this agenda in that regard. Still, there's no better group of institutions that work together to share best practices than community colleges.”
Spilde played down those concerns, arguing that this public pledge and the proposed voluntary national accountability system  are being created by community colleges so that a federal assessment agenda will not be forced on them.
“If we believe that we want to continue to serve the vast diversity of students we serve – and I believe we do – I believe it's incumbent upon us to create a framework of how we can be measured,” Spilde said. “I would rather shape and influence what happens to us rather than leave it up to somebody else. We've got to shape it so it doesn't end up being a centralized, federalized system we don't want.”
Following the public signing ceremony Tuesday, Melinda French Gates addressed a large gathering of community college leaders and reiterated a $110 million pledge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  to “replace weak remedial programs with new technologies and fresh ideas.”
Though about half of the $110 million commitment has already been given to efforts such as the Developmental Education Initiative – which is focusing on how community colleges can leverage state policy to make developmental methods more effective  – the remaining $57 million "will be given as grants over the next two years and will be guided by lessons learned through the earlier investments,"
Reforming developmental education, Gates argued, is essential to the meeting the newly signed pledge to boost graduation rates.
“Community colleges led the way on college access, now they must lead the way on college completion,” Gates said, according to an advance copy of her speech. “Research shows that improving remediation is the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate with a certificate or a degree.... Either you can keep doing what you’ve been doing, in which case you will gradually find yourself able to meet fewer and fewer of your students’ needs, or you can innovate. You can educate your students according to new models that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost.”