In the spotlight more than ever before, community colleges are increasingly being asked to do more with less -- facing greater pressure to produce more college graduates at the same time that state funding is being reduced.
For example, Arizona's state spending on community colleges in fiscal 2013 dropped 7 percent, from $71 million to about $66 million, in spite of a 7 percent increase in community college enrollment. In Virginia, the average state funding per student at community colleges fell 36 percent, from $4,602 to $2,946, between 2006 and 2011. And, in the last four years, demand for community college education in California has increased while the budgets have been cut by 12 percent. Many institutions nationwide cite such hurdles to justify three-year graduation rates dipping as low as 15 percent, saying it’s impossible to do better. But that’s not true.
Even in the face of all the challenges, there are examples of community colleges doing a superb job achieving student success at scale on campuses across the country. The sector is inventing programs that show promising results, yet community colleges are still being recognized more for their challenges than their successes. What community colleges need is a better sense of where to look for examples of excellence in the sector in order to raise the bar, not only for college completion, but also for student learning outcomes and employment after college.
In July, the Aspen Institute published data that offer some pointers on where to look for solutions. Performance and improvement metrics were released that detail which 120 community colleges are doing best -- and improving the most -- in terms of graduation rates, retention rates and degrees awarded, for all students and for minority populations that have historically performed at lower levels. The data are used to determine the top U.S. community colleges that are eligible for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
The data set Aspen released, which is based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), does not tell the whole story, but it tells an important one. It shows community colleges across the country what levels of student success are possible, as well as some places they ought to look to as models. For example, the data show that:
- Walla Walla Community College (Wash.) boasts a 54 percent three-year graduation and transfer rate, well above the national average of 40 percent.
- Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 48 percent for Hispanic students, which make up over 30 percent of its student body.
- Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 76 percent, even though over 40 percent of its students are low-income enough to be receiving Pell grants.
Not every example on this list of 120 is relevant to every community college. But every two-year college in the country can find examples in the Aspen data set of a place that looks a lot like they do, yet is achieving higher levels of student graduation, or retention, or degrees awarded, or minority student success. They can then work to figure out what those colleges are doing that allowed them to be so successful and examine the programs that are working well -- helping students learn, complete programs and obtain degrees.
For example, even after consecutive years of budget cuts in California, Santa Barbara City College has maintained an excellent range of programs to improve student success, including an accelerated track that helps speed the neediest students through developmental math and an exceptional writing center that prepares students for the rigors of upper-division classes if and when they transfer to a four-year college. Walla Walla Community College has developed very strong systems for advising students to ensure that they complete degrees, employing quarterly advising by case managers and excellent online tools to monitor progress towards credentials with strong labor market value. Lake Area Technical Institute also prevents students from slipping through the cracks by enrolling all students in cohort-based, block-scheduled programs, where students progress together through each semester knowing exactly what courses, degree and career lie ahead.
Valencia College, the winner of the first Aspen Prize in 2011, achieved its 51 percent three-year graduation rate with a highly diverse student population – 46 percent of its students are Hispanic or African-American. While many significant and scaled initiatives have contributed to Valencia’s exceptional student outcomes, the college’s success is built in substantial part on a culture of learning among professors and staff, fueled by a completely revamped tenure process that rewards professors for improving their teaching.
These institutions, as well as the others on the list of 120, have awakened to the realities that we cannot continue to deliver higher education in the same way we always have in this country and expect better student outcomes. And, community college outcomes need to improve. The national full-time graduation rate of 28 percent is unacceptably low, and student success rates remain under 40 percent even if you count students who transfer to a four-year college without ever completing community college. And, as has been widely reported, graduation rates are even lower for the large number students who enter community college needing remedial education.
But understanding the need to improve is only the first step. By examining the quantitative outcomes of the 120 colleges on this list, all community colleges should be able to understand that much higher levels of student success are possible. Aspen will help over the coming year by releasing toolkits and providing briefings about what is happening at the 10 finalist community colleges vying for the 2013 prize -- which were just announced. Our hope is that increasing amounts of attention will be paid to these exemplars of student success, and that more and more people will recognize them as excellent, deserving of our investments and places that offer institution-wide solutions to the challenges community colleges face.
Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.