Lessons Learned

Josh Wyner's new book describes what community colleges do well, and what they can do better.

April 11, 2014

Josh Wyner visits a lot of community colleges. After several years traveling the country to help administer the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, Wyner wrote a book to share what he’s seen.

The Aspen Prize has shined a spotlight on what community colleges do well. But it has also helped exhort the sector to do better, and to back up its achievements with data. Wyner, the executive director of the Aspen College Excellence, has brought that same tough love approach with his book, which is titled What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success (Harvard Education Press).

We recently caught up with Wyner over email to discuss the findings he shared in the book.

Q. Have community colleges become more responsive to labor markets? Are most doing this well enough?

A. Most community colleges deliver credentials through two distinct operational units -- general education and career/technical education (CTE). While some do a better job than others, nearly every CTE program has a long history of working with employers to respond to regional needs for workforce skills. But most community college students nationally are not in CTE programs; rather, they’re pursuing an associate degree that is in essence the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. Plenty of evidence -- from employer surveys to assessments of college graduates’ critical-thinking abilities -- suggests that general education programs (both two-year and four-year) are not adequately delivering the problem-solving, communications and other skills employers need.

In many cases, general education programs could learn a lot from high-functioning CTE programs. For example, many community college CTE program leaders work with employers to define competencies needed in the workplace, which then are incorporated into the on-campus curriculum and on-the-job training program components of the program. Those employers, in turn, often help fund everything from physical infrastructure to training tools to student scholarships at the community college. Likewise, more general education program leaders could work with employers to define the problem-solving and communications skills graduates need, assess those skills in their programs, and then engage employers in helping students attain those skills through, for example, internships and apprenticeships designed to impart specific skills and scholarships to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

In addition, CTE programs are generally much better than general education programs at gathering and analyzing information about graduates’ employment outcomes. Excellent community colleges use these data leads to decide which programs to expand, revamp or close. Shouldn’t general education programs follow suit? Wouldn’t they be better able to help students succeed by understanding whether transfer students actually attain their bachelor’s degrees and whether all students are eventually employed with strong wages? 

Q. You've suggested that community colleges could learn from for-profits. Which lessons?

A. To be clear, some activities of some for-profit educational institutions, like predatory marketing practices, run counter to the public interest. But there are practices of for-profits that are worth paying attention to. For example, some take the professors with the highest retention rates in upper-division classes and assign them to entry-level classes. They even pay more for teaching intro classes. This, of course, is the opposite of what happens in most traditional colleges, where professors with seniority opt out of teaching entry-level classes. Why the difference? Keeping students through that first year improves overall graduation rates, which means more students and greater profits. In this case, at least, the profit goal and student goals are aligned.

Can public community colleges create incentives for the best professors to teach the courses that are the most important for student retention and degree completion? This might offer a way to increase compensation for the best professors -- including some adjuncts -- while increasing student success.

Q. Are there examples of community colleges that have been able to cut programs that aren't working?

A. This is among the most critical challenges faced by community colleges. It is very hard to develop and scale effective programs aimed at increasing student success if they are forever competing for resources with existing programs. Walla Walla Community College in Washington State has closed several programs, like carpentry, because the employment and earnings outcomes for graduates were not strong. As importantly, some colleges think smartly about whether to open programs, saving themselves the trouble of having to close ineffective programs later on. For example, Lake Area Technical Institute, in South Dakota, chose not to open a large-animal veterinary tech program despite strong demand from prospective students, because employers they surveyed did not indicate a workforce need.

These colleges both have a culture of consistently aligning program-related decisions to student outcomes. Building and sustaining such a culture requires transparency and engagement of faculty and staff in the decision-making process so that the cuts don’t appear arbitrary or rash.

Q.  Some say community colleges have become "separate and unequal" due to racial and socioeconomic segregation. Are they right? Can community colleges really do much to up their game given the limited resources most have?

A. Research -- most recently that of Anthony Carnevale -- shows that as higher education access has increased in the U.S., so too has stratification: White, affluent students are much more likely than others to attend selective colleges, while minorities and low-income students are more likely to attend open-access colleges. It is absolutely essential that more be done to make sure that students are not, in essence, assigned to a certain type of college based on the color of their skin or the size of their (or their parents’) bank accounts. Moreover, given the disproportionately high numbers of vulnerable adults in community colleges, states and the federal government must reverse the decades-long trend of providing the lowest level of support to community colleges. This point was driven home in the recent Century Foundation community college equity study, which found shocking differences in public expenditures between elite colleges and community colleges.

At the same time, some community colleges have done exceptional jobs with constricted resources and large numbers of vulnerable students. For example, Valencia College, which is located in Orlando and was the winner of the 2011 Aspen Prize, receives among the lowest per-pupil state contributions of any Florida community college and has a student population that is more than 40 percent Hispanic or African American. Yet the college nearly doubled the number of students receiving associate of arts degrees between 2006 and 2011. So, yes, let’s continue to work toward equalizing opportunity and financing. But let’s also acknowledge that significantly increased student success is possible even under current conditions.

Q. What are the most important characteristics of a top-notch community college president?

A. The most successful community colleges have great leaders. Looking across the Aspen Prize-winning institutions, a few characteristics stand out. First is a deep commitment to student access and success, which enables exceptional leaders to stay at an institution long enough to build a new culture and confront the significant challenges associated with achieving better student outcomes. A second common thread is the willingness to take risks. A strong leader will close a gymnasium or shut down a sports team -- even if that decision is politically unpopular -- if that’s what is needed to have the space or resources for a new tutoring center.

Also, great leaders publicly acknowledge and take personal responsibility for closing big gaps in student success. That can be risky for a president trying to “sell” the institution to prospective students or state officials or employers, but it can also help build a stronger base of support for reform. Finally, great presidents are really visionary change leaders. They understand how to rally an entire college, no matter how decentralized, around a common goal. And they understand that the community college cannot do this work alone -- they build new structures that connect the community college’s efforts with the work of K-12 schools, employers, four-year colleges and community-based organizations.

Q. Any tips for how presidents can keep pushing in the long slog of improving completion rates?

A. Exceptional community college presidents are among the most impressive leaders I have encountered in any sector. In addition to working very long hours in ways designed to advance student success, they have an unusual -- and seemingly contradictory -- combination of patience and urgency. Their patience is exhibited as they work to engage everyone at their college in building plans around a common set of specific student success goals and in their commitment to staying at their institutions long enough to move beyond the creation of a few excellent programs to the establishment of a sustainably great institution.

Urgency is reflected in all of their daily work and interactions. They use student success gaps to convince people to embrace a faster pace of reform than is typical. They regularly check to see whether reforms are being implemented and, if not, work to provide the new resources or reassign staff to accelerate progress. They consistently ask whether programs are working and, if not, what can be done to fix them or change course. In these and other ways, they help establish a culture that challenges, empowers and supports faculty and staff to continuously improve student success.


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