Millions of community college students started the new school year with big plans: study for a couple of years before transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree. Meet with students on any comprehensive community college campus and you can hear the determination in their voices as they talk about their focus on getting to graduation so they can make a good life after college.
The odds are against them.
As many as 80 percent of entering community college students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. But research by our colleagues Davis Jenkins and John Fink of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College tells us that only 14 percent do so within six years of entering community college. What can be done to close the gap between community college student aspirations and the reality of their incredibly low transfer and bachelor’s attainment rates?
When answering this question, many tend to look for state policy solutions. State efforts to strengthen transfer outcomes by, for example, creating articulation agreements, establishing common course numbering and guaranteeing community college students’ admissions to a state university may be promising. But there is evidence that those policies alone are not capable of helping significantly more students attain a bachelor's degree. In other words, state policy matters, but something else is needed.
In the end, institutional action can and does make a big difference regardless of the policy context. And the approach of individual institutions to helping students is also much more important than the student characteristics, like socioeconomic status, that so often are assumed to drive completion rates.
CCRC’s January 2016 report published with the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that variations in transfer outcomes among two- and four-year institutions cannot be explained by institutional characteristics such as location in a city, suburb or rural area and the relative wealth of the student population. Similar groups of students at similar community colleges have very different transfer rates and levels of bachelor’s attainment. Transfer outcomes vary by state, but within states outcomes among institutions vary enormously. We cannot pin transfer outcomes to the category of institution, the type of students they serve or the state in which they are located.
This strongly suggests that what individual two- and four-year colleges and universities do matters a lot to student outcomes. It was with this research in mind that the Aspen Institute and CCRC published a Transfer Playbook, which summarizes research into the practices of highly effective two- and four-year transfer partnerships. What the research behind the playbook tells us is that achieving better transfer outcomes requires action at multiple levels both within institutions and among partners.
Within institutions, achieving exceptional outcomes necessitates action at three different levels.
Institutional leaders at all levels, but starting with the president, must make clear within the institution that transfer student success is a priority, reflected in guiding strategic documents, oral communications, data summaries, the college website and budgets.
Faculty and department heads need the tools and time to work alongside their two-year and four-year counterparts to develop clear bachelor’s degree program maps and to establish communications channels to allow consistent updates and additions to those maps as disciplines and workplaces change.
Student advisers, both academic and others, must have the ability to access, translate and use data on student success, knowledge of transfer pathways and requirements, and training on how to accelerate student decisions on major and four-year destination (and why that matters so much).
Success for all students who aspire to transfer requires deep change not just within institutions but in the ways institutions partner across sectors. A host of disincentives, real and perceived, impede those partnerships. And yet, the best transfer outcomes nationally are often the result of community college and four-year partners that have overcome these barriers and set common goals, established common measures of success, examined student outcome data together and crafted joint solutions to challenges their students experience while transitioning between them in ways that facilitate -- rather than impede --bachelor’s degree attainment. Ultimately, these partners understand their interdependence in accomplishing bachelor’s degree attainment goals for students who begin in community colleges.
Improving transfer outcomes can and should be a central goal of state policy. But doing so will also require engaging college professionals in changing the day-to-day practices of their colleges and universities to ensure that they prioritize transfer students’ success as a key to fulfillment of their institutions’ missions. Doing that will in turn require a redefinition of student success. Just as many higher education institutions have come to understand that access without completion is inadequate, so too must they now come to accept that -- for many students -- completion that stops short of a bachelor’s degree may fail to deliver what they came to college to achieve.
Josh Wyner is founder and executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute. Alison Kadlec is senior vice president and director of higher education and work force programs at Public Agenda.
Oregon's free community college scholarship faces money woes and criticism, particularly from the state's four-year university leaders, who cite the program's higher-income beneficiaries while also worrying about enrollment declines at their institutions.
My favorite columns to write are when I discover what I have missed, where I have been flat-out wrong. This is one.
Even with hungry community college students at my door most days, even amid finding somebody, anybody, to take my order for $4,000 worth of Clif Bars for faculty members to have for hungry students, even my cranky, generally angry-for-my-students-at-community-college-establishment-inertia self must stop, smile and shout my thanks to President Obama and Jill Biden and the higher ed staff at the Department of Education and the White House for eight years of the best support community colleges and their embattled students have ever had.
Tomorrow morning at the White House, Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, will open a morning-long “convening” for about 200 people from government, education and (the too few) NGOs that have had shoulders to the wheel to fulfill Obama’s declaration that “Every American, whether they’re young or just young at heart, should be able to earn the skills and education necessary to compete and win in the 21st century economy.”
Even I had to stop and wonder and remember and be grateful that the president of the United States, from his first budget to his 2015 declaration that community college should be free for deserving students, to tomorrow’s White House convening, has never taken the spotlight off of the potential that (most) faculty and staff members have always seen in the seven million students at the nation’s 1,100 community colleges.
The big Obama accomplishment: “During the height of the economic meltdown, we not only sustained, but more than doubled, funding for the Pell Grant program, enabling more than nine million more low-income students to go to college. When you think about it, we’ve given more than 17 million Pell Grants to students from low-income families since the start of our administration than otherwise would have been provided, an average of around three million more each year. Year after year after year!” That’s from the 2013 “swan song” of Martha Kanter, Obama’s first under secretary of education.
Kanter now heads CollegePromise.org, an NGO that has had a hand in fulfilling Obama’s wish to make community college as free as high school. Kanter and the College Promise staffer Andra Armstrong sent me this within minutes of my Sunday morning email query asking about tomorrow’s agenda and what she, Kanter, was most proud of. College Promise announced Monday that some form of free community college is happening in 150 programs in 37 states. (Click here for the new database of College Promise programs.)
What clobbered my crankiness? I do not retract my recent column comparing the community college dropout rate to the moral equivalent of 4.5 million deaths. I had begun my reporting expecting the runaround and deflections on this national crisis that so often come from the community college establishment (you know who you are). Was I wrong? No. I had failed to see the cumulative work by the Obama administration.
I had missed the long view. I stopped to remember October 2010, when “Praise but No Cash” was the headline of my column from the White House Summit on Community Colleges. That meeting was a gift from the White House, after the community college establishment failed to preserve the $12 billion for community colleges that Obama put in his first budget. At the summit, no one I could find from the community college establishment had even brought a proposal for another try.
The lightning response last week, within hours of my first query about tomorrow’s meeting, and a nonstop flood of information, emails and telephone calls from the White House, clobbered that crankiness. (Thank you, Hannah Hankins, from the White House.) That crankiness fell with all the White House briefing releases I had failed to accumulate. And from the thoughtful 30-minute, off-the-record background call late Friday afternoon with four White House staffers. Is/was the White House spinning me? Absolutely. But when I’m spun with information that makes me stop to reconsider my (then bad) attitude? I choose to listen and to think.
Let’s rewind again to the October 2010 White House summit. I wrote from Washington that day, “Hearing the words ‘community college’ spoken in the White House by the president of the United States? And spoken again by the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers? In my lifetime? Until yesterday, I would not even have dreamed. Or that I’d be standing beneath the chandeliers in the East Room, seeing and hearing this myself.”
Now, six years later, October 2016? Wednesday’s White House convening will begin with a review on the progress of what I would never have believed possible in October 2010: Obama’s January 2015 State of the Union America’s College Promise proposal. Tuition-free community college for responsible students. (Click here for a summary of the proposed bill.)
That was more than a year ago. The work has continued. Take a look.
My 2010 column White House Summit headline, “Praise but No Cash”? Well, the cash arrived. Turn to the last page of the fact sheet. I found, on one page, the 50-state details of $69.3 billion now invested in the success of community college students, including $1.1 billion for Massachusetts and the hungry students at my door.
My crankiness? By Sunday afternoon, I realized I had missed all that the White House and Department of Education staff had been doing in these eight Obama years. In spite of the economy at the start, in spite of national political inertia of too much of the community college establishment, these staffers, permanent and political appointees, applied the truth that “politics is the art of the possible.” They had done what they could, obstacles or not.
Again I wonder if this is just a column, spun by a wily White House, a put over on an obscure columnist who wishes he were there tomorrow. Have I been spun? Absolutely. And with great skill and a deluge of facts. Of course I swamped in positive spin. In law and policy and legislative terms, so much of this progress for community college students is still in the sausage making of Washington, not yet the sausage. Many states have yet to commit funding. I have found no plans inside the Beltway or out to put America’s College Promise to a vote in the upcoming lame duck session of this Congress. (Proposal to add to tomorrow’s agenda: commission Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, to write a plausible script for passing the bill. Give the script a try in real life?)
As before I began this column, I do not understand why low-income students, who add up to millions of votes, still, with all Obama has done, end up with the least federal money. As before this column, eliminating student hunger and homelessness, the cause led by my friend Sara Goldrick-Rab, who will be at the White House tomorrow, stays my own top issue. My impatience with much of the community college establishment continues and (you know who you are) please remember these millions of students during the federal free lunch you will receive at the vice president’s residence tomorrow after the White House panel discussions.
For a day or two this week, I’ll be spun. Fair’s fair. To President Obama, to Jill Biden, to the White House and Department of Education staffers, past and present, I shout again, “Thank you.”
Wick Sloane is an end user of a most highly selective higher education. Follow him on Twitter @WickSloane.