SEATTLE -- A few years ago, gatherings of community college leaders commonly featured discussions of the unfairness and inaccuracy of using graduation rates to measure institutional success. There were no shortages of arguments to make: Many community college students don't want a degree, or they transfer before earning one, or they just wanted to take one course anyway, or they can only afford to take one course at a time.
Those sorts of criticisms still came up here in discussions this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. And those criticisms remain easy to back up. But in public statements here, on the agenda, and in a series of activities, the emphasis is much more solidly than in the past on the importance of community college students finishing up -- ideally their degree or certificate programs, but sometimes just a single course. In speeches, new campaigns and informal discussion, the talk of the conference is completion.
At the meeting's opening session Saturday night, Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College and the AACC board chair, announced that six national associations focused on community colleges will issue a joint statement Tuesday pledging a "unified effort" to increase completion rates. In addition to AACC, the effort will be joined by the Association of Community College Trustees, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and Phi Theta Kappa.
While AACC is not releasing details on the effort until Tuesday, Spilde said it would represent an "unprecedented coalition for commitment." Several involved with the effort said that they viewed it as a first step in a process in which community colleges might be encouraged to set very specific goals for increasing completion rates -- similar to the way many college presidents have made pledges to reduce their carbon footprints.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- which has become a major player in financing and agenda setting in community college education -- was involved in bringing the various groups together, and the signing of the statement will take place just before Melinda Gates addresses the community college leaders.
Diane Troyer, a senior program officer at the foundation, was frank before a packed session Sunday that the foundation wanted to help propel more of a national movement for change at community colleges, which are historically local and state-oriented institutions. “I think one of the things that holds us back is that we don’t have a system” of community colleges, but instead rely on local governance, where “it’s difficult to reach consensus around really huge goals."
She said that the statement being signed Tuesday would drive the associations and their members to "reach consensus on what works, instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom."
And Troyer was not particularly sympathetic to those who have noted all the reasons for low graduation rates at community colleges. Even if students don't all come to graduate, she said, "they don't come to us for three weeks of math," but that's what a lot of students leave with.
Troyer's Sunday appearance here featured her and Holly Zanville, senior program director of the Lumina Foundation for Education, talking about their vision for improving completion rates at community colleges. George Boggs, the AACC's president, led the discussion, and audience members lined up to ask questions and praise the foundations (even having been warned jokingly by Troyer that she didn't have any grants to give out on Sunday).
The questions did not generally challenge the idea that completion rates need to get much better and that fairly radical changes in the ways community colleges operate are needed in order to do so.
Both Troyer and Zanville praised a combination of college polices (offering short, intense modules of remedial education, for instance) and state policies (basing more funding on completion rather than enrollment). Troyer noted that the top predictive factor on whether similar community college students will graduate is where they live. "States matter," she said.
Zanville also spoke about the importance of new approaches. Asked by an audience member about what she thought about "university centers" -- created on some community college campuses, with bachelor's degrees offered by a range of providers or the colleges themselves -- Danville praised the idea. She noted that many low-income students don't want to travel far to finish a degree. And she said it was clear that a range of new institutions -- such as university centers and for-profit "mega universities" with more than 100,000 students -- were changing the landscape.
"I don't think any of this is going to go away," she said.
Both Troyer and Zanville talked repeatedly about the idea that reforms must "scale up" and be ideas that won't help just a few students, but ultimately most students.
While their discussion was big picture, other events here Sunday zeroed in on specific parts of an agenda focused on completion.
The Association of Community College Trustees announced the creation -- with the Community College Leadership Program of the University of Texas at Austin -- of a Governance Institute for Student Success.  The idea for the effort (financially backed by a Gates grant) is to better train trustees and presidents to focus on student success.
And many presentations here that focused on individual colleges avoided any mention of reasons for low completion rates and focused on specific policies to increase them -- and the importance of collecting data to monitor progress.
For example, Anita Gliniecki, president of Housatonic Community College, in Connecticut, described her enrollment gains this way: total enrollment increased since 2005 from 4,400 to 5,900, but the full-time equivalent figure increased from 2,300 to 3,400. "We've been pushing more students to come full time because we know they will stay," she said.
Her topic was about how the kind of remedial reform much touted by Gates and Lumina has played out successfully. In this case, through work with Achieving the Dream, a major reform project, Housatonic has created "open entry, open exit" remedial math. In these programs, students study with tutors on a self-paced system, frequently finishing in weeks, rather than a traditional semester. Not only are these students finishing more of their remedial math, but their fall-to-fall retention rates are much higher than those of students who receive remedial education in traditional semesters.
"We used to focus on just bringing them in, but now it's about what happens to them," said Gliniecki.
Bill Truehart, president of Achieving the Dream, said in an interview that at the college level and among national leaders of community colleges, the conversation has changed. "There is a different expectation now," he said, "and it is about completion."