ORLANDO -- Community colleges have their work cut out for them. America’s social mobility and economic prosperity depend to a large degree on their success, and the colleges must do a much better job of meeting this challenge – all while facing money problems and preserving their missions.
This message comes from the sector itself, through a new report  from a commission convened by the American Association of Community Colleges.
The call to action includes soaring language but few surprises. It also traces familiar territory laid out by powerful foundations and President Obama on college completion and workforce development.
In fairness, it's hard to be fresh with those refrains. And the association appears to be pushing for community colleges themselves to take more of a leadership role on the completion agenda, which is understandable.
With the report the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges has also signaled a shift in tone for the community college establishment, which has long focused on preserving student access and pushing back at cuts in government funding. Times have changed and new approaches are needed, according to the report, which is dubbed “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and America’s Future.”
Several primary hurdles stand in the way of the commission’s overarching goal -- which is consistent with President Obama's -- for an additional five million students to earn degrees, certificates or other credentials by 2020. And not all of the obstacles are due solely to outside influences, like bad budgets or underprepared students, the commission found.
“What we find today 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,” according to the report.
Other glaring problems include remedial education pass rates and the achievement gaps between underserved student populations and their wealthier, white peers. The commission also criticized a financing structure that rewards enrollment increases at community colleges without adequate support and “largely without incentives for promoting student success.”
The report is the culmination of a self-examination for the sector that AACC began last year. The first step was a listening tour, in which the association’s new president, Walter G. Bumphus, who arrived  in January of 2011, and staff members from the group talked with 1,300 people representing all facets of community colleges. (The association also released  its Voluntary Framework of Accountability last year.)
Bumphus then announced  the creation of the 38-member panel, which includes big names from within the sector and from higher education more broadly. They were tasked with envisioning a new approach for community colleges that would also safeguard the fundamental mission of “ensuring that millions of diverse and often underserved students attain a high-quality college education,” Bumphus wrote in the report’s introduction.
A primary theme in the report is a call for better support systems, “including professional development, technology and a new culture of evidence.” The commission also recommended more collaboration between community colleges and other institutions. That cooperation is needed, the report said, to help students transition to and beyond community colleges. And in addressing barriers to student transfers, the commission had some strong language for four-year institutions.
“Too many senior college and university leaders, faculty, department chairs and deans are ambivalent about community colleges, understanding them not as having different missions but as somehow inferior because of their open-door admissions,” the report said.
The commission's seven final recommendations fall under three categories:
Redesign students’ educational experiences:
1) Increase completion rates by 50 percent by 2020 while preserving access.
2) Dramatically improve college readiness.
3) Close the skills gap by focusing career and technical education on job preparation.
Reinvest institutional roles:
4) Refocus the community college mission to meet 21st-century education and employment needs.
5) Invest in collaboration between community colleges and with partners among philanthropic organizations, government and the private sector.
Reset the system:
6) Target public and private investments strategically to create new incentives for colleges and students.
7) Encourage rigor, transparency and accountability.