At a time when postsecondary education is a requirement for an increasing number of U.S. jobs, community colleges provide broad access to higher education, enrolling nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates. But is access enough? Fewer than half of degree-seeking community college students achieve their goals. Do we want merely to get students to attend college, or are we committed to seeing them through to graduation?
One might think that states, in order to reap the economic benefits of a more educated workforce, would offer incentives for more students to complete their education. But most states link their support of community colleges to enrollment levels, not to student progress or success. Public funding rewards getting students into the college, independent of whether any given student is achieving his or her educational goal or is on the road to dropping out.
Over the years, a number of states have experimented with financial incentives based on performance measures like graduation rates; but a newly approved program in Washington state takes a bold and different approach. The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges decided that institutions might be more motivated to improve performance by rewards for student progress past key “momentum points,” as well as for completion. Under the new plan,  Washington will reward community and technical colleges for every student who achieves particular research-based benchmarks leading up to and including graduation.
Washington's community and technical colleges will receive extra money for students who earn their first 15 and first 30 college credits, earn their first 5 credits of college-level math, pass a pre-college writing or math course, make significant gains in certain basic skills tests, earn a degree or complete a certificate. Colleges also will be rewarded for students who earn a GED through their programs. All of these benchmarks are important accomplishments that help propel students forward on the road of higher education.
Washington State’s Student Achievement Initiative rewards its colleges for helping students continue moving forward regardless of where they start or how far they may be from attaining their educational goals. Successful students take many intermediate steps between enrollment and graduation, each accomplishment building a foundation for future success. Washington state’s plan recognizes the importance of supporting students as they achieve these intermediate milestones and rewards colleges for doing so. A student who is unable to pass a pre-college math course, for example, cannot continue on to college-level work, much less earn a degree.
We know there are key points along students’ educational journeys where they may be more likely to discontinue or postpone their studies. Students who are underprepared for college-level work are less likely to graduate than their peers who move directly into college classes, for example. However, an analysis of data  from Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national initiative to help more community college students succeed, shows that students who successfully completed any developmental course in their first semester were actually more likely than their peers to persist and succeed. Washington’s plan seeks to focus colleges’ attention on some of these key educational turning points and improve the odds of success at each step.
Knowing that the success of the Student Achievement Initiative depends upon buy-in at the institutional level, from CEOs down to classroom faculty, the State Board pursued an inclusive design process and is reaching out to every college in the state. During the design phase, presidents, trustees, business and civic leaders, faculty representatives and others -- both supportive and skeptical -- were consulted. In the current year, when the new system will be tested before full implementation, video conferences have been held with faculty members, administrators, and other staff at every college.
This incentive program is a good fit in Washington, which is among 15 states across the country participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative. Participating colleges make five specific commitments, which align well with Washington’s new benchmarks. The colleges pledge to increase the percentage of students who complete developmental courses, complete introductory college courses, complete any courses they take with a “C” or better, re-enroll from one academic term to the next, and earn certificates and degrees. For each commitment, colleges analyze data to measure their progress with support and guidance from the initiative.
Currently, six of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges participate in Achieving the Dream and can serve as a learning laboratory for the entire system. The state’s incentive plan gives colleges the freedom to figure out how best to improve their students’ success rates, and being able to learn from peers who have already analyzed the effectiveness of various strategies will help them make more informed decisions.
Washington isn’t the only state where such an incentive system can work. With more than 80 participating colleges, Achieving the Dream provides an existing support network for efforts to improve student success rates. And offering student success incentives need not be confined to Achieving the Dream states. More states should implement similar programs, altering incentives in ways that will compel colleges to action. With so many students in community colleges and so many of today’s jobs requiring higher-level skills, it just makes sense.
George R. Boggs is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. Marlene B. Seltzer is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future. Both of their groups are among nine national organizations working together as part of Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count.