Shining a Spotlight on 2-Year Colleges

Federal student aid panel invites ideas for strengthening community colleges' role in ratcheting up number of four-year-degree recipients.
December 11, 2007

Community colleges have been slowly creeping into more and more policy discussions at the state level, with governors and legislators increasingly recognizing the key role that two-year institutions play in developing workers, educating adults and, to a larger extent every day, serving as an entry point for traditional age students.

And while community colleges have received a few head fakes in their direction from Washington in recent years, with President Bush creating a small new grant program for two-year institutions, the Spellings Commission recognizing their significance (though only in passing) in its 2006 report, and Congress creating a community college caucus, the institutions have largely remained low on the federal policy making agenda.

That is despite the fact that the institutions educate nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States; that community colleges already educate a majority of the low-income and first-generation college students who are the fastest-growing portion of the young American population; and that if the country is to succeed in closing the “degree gap” that it faces in producing a sufficient number of educated citizens, two-year institutions will have to play a key role.

“If students who started at community colleges [earned four-year degrees at] comparable rates” to students who start at four-year colleges, said Judith Flink, chairwoman of the advisory panel and executive director of student financial services and cashier operations at the University of Illinois system, “we could gain more than 2 million bachelor’s degrees over the next decade.”

It was with that background that the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, the federal panel that advises Congress on issues related to student aid, held a daylong symposium Monday on community colleges. The panel’s executive director, William Goggin, said that its members had decided to hold the session in recognition of the fact that the institutions have received relatively little attention from federal policy makers, including the advisory committee.

Goggin said the panel’s members wanted to better understand community colleges so that, “if the federal government is interested in making community colleges a more viable pathway to four-year degrees, we can help answer the question, 'what would that look like?'"

At one point in Monday’s proceedings, Diane Auer Jones, the U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education, asked a similar question to state and other officials who are working to try to ease the transfer of students from two-year to four-year colleges.

“What's the best thing [Secretary Margaret Spellings] could do to enable you to do your work?” Jones asked. “If we came up with $2 million” -- “no guarantees” on that, she quickly warned -- “what could we do?”

If the panel’s aim was to flood its members and Jones with possible ideas, they succeeded; more than one participant in the meeting joked that the phrase “best practices” was getting a workout at the session. While officials from various states, foundations, and advocacy groups promoted what they have done on the three big topics discussed -- bolstering initial enrollment, improving students’ persistence once in community colleges, or easing transfer to baccalaureate institutions -- many acknowledged that data to prove their success was sometimes in short supply.

The opening discussion, focused on "enabling enrollment," examined an effort in Maryland that over three years increased the proportion of state need-based financial aid flowing to community college students to 15 percent from 8 percent. It spotlighted the California Community Colleges' "I Can Afford College" campaign that produced a 20 percent increase in the number of two-year college students there qualifying for state aid. And it drew attention to Northern Virginia Community College's Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program, which has helped draw more low-income and first-generation students to the institution and seen them stay in college at higher rates than better prepared peers.

The enrollment session also featured Valencia Community College's unusual -- to the point of startling -- marketing campaign, which seeks to tap into the same fashionable inclinations that attracts the current generation to television's "Project Runway."

The campaign gives education at the Florida community college a haute couture theme -- "Education by Valencia," with models wearing wild costumes that represent the college's different disciplines -- that plays well with its mostly 18- to 24-year-old audience, said Christian Campagnuolo, assistant vice president for marketing and media relations, who previously worked at an ad agency and at Walt Disney Company. "The idea is, 'what are you going to wear when you go out in the world?'" he said. "We give out more A.A. degrees than any other community college, and we wanted our campaign to be a little different. We wanted to have a little swagger in our message."

A panel on student persistence returned to more mundane (if slightly more grounded) material, examining programs in Louisiana in which small scholarships were shown to help keep students enrolled and in Florida, where community college students who enrolled in "College 101" were 8 percent more likely than their peers to earn a credential (the gap was slightly wider for those enrolled in remedial courses, said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. David Prince, assistant director for research and analysis at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, described the effort there to build a student achievement goal into the state's funding formula for two-year institutions.

In the day's third major session, on "facilitating transfer," focused on the burgeoning effort by the Kentucky Council for Postsecondary Education to increase the number of degree recipients in the state, in part by requiring four-year colleges to begin reporting a slew of data, including on the number of transfer students they took. That helped the state increase the number of two-year-college transfers by 19 percent from 2002-3 to 2006-7, but to meet its overall goals for degree recipients, Kentucky needs to increase that number by 10 percent a year, said James Applegate, the council's vice president for academic affairs.

As the next step, the Kentucky council hopes to begin rewarding institutions monetarily for producing more graduates, and that (if approved by legislators) is likely to encourage even more collaboration between two-year and four-year institutions on easing transfer, said Applegate. "It didn't take really smart presidents very long to realize they couldn't get to their numbers without transfer students."

Jane Oates, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, meanwhile, described her state's new law -- an agreement that produced "tears but no blood," she said -- that mandates that an associate degree awarded by a county college must be fully transferable and count as the first two years toward a baccalaureate degree at any of the state’s public institutions.


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