Community colleges

CUNY faculty protest response to a departmental vote at a community college

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After English department disappointed officials, administration said it would call off searches, send adjuncts "letters of non-reappointment," and tell students to take composition elsewhere. Now president says that was just a "worst-case scenario."

Data show key role for community colleges in 4-year degree production

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Study shows that 45 percent of bachelor's degree recipients studied at two-year institutions first -- as many as three-quarters in some states.

Essay on how community colleges can do better

In the spotlight more than ever before, community colleges are increasingly being asked to do more with less -- facing greater pressure to produce more college graduates at the same time that state funding is being reduced.

For example, Arizona's state spending on community colleges in fiscal 2013 dropped 7 percent, from $71 million to about $66 million, in spite of a 7 percent increase in community college enrollment. In Virginia, the average state funding per student at community colleges fell 36 percent, from $4,602 to $2,946, between 2006 and 2011. And, in the last four years, demand for community college education in California has increased while the budgets have been cut by 12 percent. Many institutions nationwide cite such hurdles to justify three-year graduation rates dipping as low as 15 percent, saying it’s impossible to do better. But that’s not true.

Even in the face of all the challenges, there are examples of community colleges doing a superb job achieving student success at scale on campuses across the country. The sector is inventing programs that show promising results, yet community colleges are still being recognized more for their challenges than their successes. What community colleges need is a better sense of where to look for examples of excellence in the sector in order to raise the bar, not only for college completion, but also for student learning outcomes and employment after college.

In July, the Aspen Institute published data that offer some pointers on where to look for solutions. Performance and improvement metrics were released that detail which 120 community colleges are doing best -- and improving the most -- in terms of graduation rates, retention rates and degrees awarded, for all students and for minority populations that have historically performed at lower levels. The data are used to determine the top U.S. community colleges that are eligible for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The data set Aspen released, which is based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), does not tell the whole story, but it tells an important one. It shows community colleges across the country what levels of student success are possible, as well as some places they ought to look to as models. For example, the data show that:

  • Walla Walla Community College (Wash.) boasts a 54 percent three-year graduation and transfer rate, well above the national average of 40 percent.
  • Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 48 percent for Hispanic students, which make up over 30 percent of its student body.
  • Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 76 percent, even though over 40 percent of its students are low-income enough to be receiving Pell grants.

Not every example on this list of 120 is relevant to every community college. But every two-year college in the country can find examples in the Aspen data set of a place that looks a lot like they do, yet is achieving higher levels of student graduation, or retention, or degrees awarded, or minority student success. They can then work to figure out what those colleges are doing that allowed them to be so successful and examine the programs that are working well -- helping students learn, complete programs and obtain degrees. 

For example, even after consecutive years of budget cuts in California, Santa Barbara City College has maintained an excellent range of programs to improve student success, including an accelerated track that helps speed the neediest students through developmental math and an exceptional writing center that prepares students for the rigors of upper-division classes if and when they transfer to a four-year college. Walla Walla Community College has developed very strong systems for advising students to ensure that they complete degrees, employing quarterly advising by case managers and excellent online tools to monitor progress towards credentials with strong labor market value. Lake Area Technical Institute also prevents students from slipping through the cracks by enrolling all students in cohort-based, block-scheduled programs, where students progress together through each semester knowing exactly what courses, degree and career lie ahead.

Valencia College, the winner of the first Aspen Prize in 2011, achieved its 51 percent three-year graduation rate with a highly diverse student population – 46 percent of its students are Hispanic or African-American. While many significant and scaled initiatives have contributed to Valencia’s exceptional student outcomes, the college’s success is built in substantial part on a culture of learning among professors and staff, fueled by a completely revamped tenure process that rewards professors for improving their teaching.

These institutions, as well as the others on the list of 120, have awakened to the realities that we cannot continue to deliver higher education in the same way we always have in this country and expect better student outcomes. And, community college outcomes need to improve. The national full-time graduation rate of 28 percent is unacceptably low, and student success rates remain under 40 percent even if you count students who transfer to a four-year college without ever completing community college. And, as has been widely reported, graduation rates are even lower for the large number students who enter community college needing remedial education.

But understanding the need to improve is only the first step. By examining the quantitative outcomes of the 120 colleges on this list, all community colleges should be able to understand that much higher levels of student success are possible. Aspen will help over the coming year by releasing toolkits and providing briefings about what is happening at the 10 finalist community colleges vying for the 2013 prize -- which were just announced. Our hope is that increasing amounts of attention will be paid to these exemplars of student success, and that more and more people will recognize them as excellent, deserving of our investments and places that offer institution-wide solutions to the challenges community colleges face.

Joshua Wyner

Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

Community college beats no college on path to 4-year degree, study finds

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The alternative to community college for most students is typically no college, finds study that pushes back against "undermatching" warnings about two-year path.

Kelly and Schneider on the completion agenda

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A new book of essays takes stock of where "completion agenda" stands. The volume's editors talk about key lessons from the still nascent college completion push.

Colleges worry about elimination of summer Pell Grant

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A year after the year-round need-based grant was eliminated, community colleges and other institutions worry that the change will hurt student completion.

WGU pushes transfer students to graduate community college first

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Western Governors U. pushes graduation even before students enroll by offering financial perks for associate degree holders and, at WGU Texas, through partnerships with community colleges.

.300 batting average as a target for community college completion (essay)

Let’s proclaim .300 as the target national completion rate for the nation’s 1,200 community colleges. A .300 batting average is fine for baseball, a bargaining point for an even higher salary.  Why not for community college completion?

Howls about low completion rates are always in the news.  No one will ever translate “too low” into a target reflecting the variables -- student preparation, student health, country of origin, campus funding, faculty workload or hours a student must work per week.  I failed twice for this column in seeking  a coherent comment from the leaders of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). First a referral to the excellent but aging Voluntary Framework for Accountability.  Next a mumble about the inappropriateness of national comments or goals. 

I disagree. Community colleges have no more important source of funding than federal Pell Grants.  Acknowledging variances campus to campus, we still need a national target.  Little causes me more distress than that it falls to me – one of the nation’s leading obscure columnists – to take a stand for these 8 million students, many of whom are on Pell Grants and food stamps.  Until the experts offer a credible answer, I’ll say that community-college completion rate targets should align with baseball – a .300 average is pretty damn good.

Before writing here, I certainly benchmarked this hypothesis in the private sector, with a Yankees fan who’d be loath to certify any theories from Red Sox Nation. 

“A measure of success is only meaningful if everyone understands and agrees on the degree of difficulty involved,” the global advertising titan Steve Gardner said from the New York offices of his firm, Gardner Nelson + Partners.  “Arguably, the graduation rate at an elite college like Williams should be darn close to 100 percent.  Williams is rigorous … but it starts with the crème de la crème of students and protects them in an environment with strong emotional support and financial resources.  In contrast, the fact that the graduation rate at a community college may be 25 percent is inherently a meaningless statistic until it is shaped with context. What is fair to expect?”

After a winter and spring of deep analysis, I declare that baseball may be the only human enterprise with as many forbidding variables as teaching in a community college. A .300 batting average is fine for baseball.  Why not for community college completion? Baseball is our national pastime. Community colleges bear the burden of educating the core of the nation’s work force.  Why not start with batting averages?

Let me be the first to go on record, then, to state that a .300 completion average is not good enough -– for me or for my colleagues.  All I seek for community colleges are completion-rate targets reflecting the difficulty of the job.  With an awake electorate and national leadership behind me, I will commit to the completion targets below.


Completion rate

Current, We, The People Plan: Pell Grant cuts continue. Veterans flood into community colleges with no additional support for the colleges. No national leadership by or for community colleges. 

.300 and falling

Federal free and reduced lunch and breakfast extended to college students on federal Pell Grants.


Students paid to study under same conditions as federal work study.  Click here for details.


Requirement that federal Pell Grants must first be applied to achieving AP/college-level work in expository writing and in statistics. 


The federal government pays for trained veteran counselors, one for every 50 veterans on a campus.  Counselors will help with benefits, career advice, and medical management.


Equal federal subsidies, need-based, for all U.S. college students. 

Federal subsidies at community colleges per student equal to subsidies at colleges such as Williams with indoor golf nets, faculty teaching 2-5 courses a year rather than 5 per semester, and the same Alice Waters inspired dining-hall food from the Yale Sustainability Project.


I’ve been sitting here for months, beside a baseball and The Science of Hitting, by the Boston Red Sox legend and lifetime .344 hitter Ted Williams (and John Underwood).  “Hitting a baseball –- I’ve said it a thousand times -- is the single most difficult thing to do in sport,” is Williams’s opening in the book.  After careful analysis over the past five years, I’ve concluded that community college teaching is at least as difficult as hitting a baseball.

Before hammering community colleges for low completion rates, keep in mind that the top lifetime batter was Ty Cobb with .366.  Babe Ruth? .342.  Lou Gehrig? .340.  (From Baseball Almanac.)   As I write, the won/lost percentage of the top Major League, team, the Yankees, is 0.614.  In academia, that’s a D-. 

Why .300?  A few weeks before the end of last semester I was projecting how many students would finish the semester at my standard. (Many community college faculty members have such targets, in spite of reports that community colleges are afraid to be accountable.)  Mine is a credible essay answering the Advanced Placement exam question on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “Write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln uses to achieve his purpose.”

My M.B.A. HP 12-C calculator, still set to three decimal places, sent back a batting average, not a two-digit percentage: .272. That stinks. One more success, I discovered, would take me over .300, a batting average good enough to renew a Major League Baseball contact.  I looked at the list of students.  No guarantees, but I could see three I might be able to pull through before the end of the semester.  Not all three, but one of the three even if I tried for all three.  To .400?  .500?  1.000?  No way I could see, and, worse, nothing I could wish to have done differently. 

I’ll declare, as I have before (my 2010 column “Last Year I Flunked Myself”), that I flunked again.  Once again, I can end with no explanation for any percentages and enough heartwarming stories to delude myself that I’m making progress.  This semester?  A national magazine wants to publish my students’ versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”  We, the people, can’t educate eight million students via anecdotes. 

Why baseball batting? Williams includes a chart showing that a baseball can pass through the strike zone in 77 different places. I have no trouble seeing a Ted Williams chart worth of pitches headed at me when I step up before these students each day.

I am not going to trivialize students by naming them  “Curve,” “Slider,” “Changeup,” “Forkball,” or “Sinker.”  Consider the variety of pitches?  Some students are high school graduates and some have GEDs.  A Somalian explained at the start of one semester that the challenges impairing her high school experience included dodging snipers on the way to school and frequent raids on the school, machine guns firing, by rebels kidnapping future child soldiers. 

The first languages that any class might pitch to me include Arabic (Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese dialects), Armenian, Russian, Portuguese – via Brazil and Angola -- Spanish from every South and Central American country.  Somali.  French.  Creole.  Swahili. 

Hunger is a more frequent pitch.  These students may not have eaten that day.  Last spring, two students had bosses who thought nothing of scheduling 8 a.m.- 4 p.m., 4 p.m.- midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m. shifts all during one week.  One semester, I had a veteran who vanished (later found) after two more buddies from his unit committed suicide.  Once, a student was shot and murdered.  Last spring was the first semester in a while where no one in the class reported anyone shot in their family.

I don’t understand why others won’t make this proposal? The president, the board chair and the board chair-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges ducked the question twice as I worked on this column.  Here in Boston, a foundation in January issued a lightly researcher, predictable report with all the usual comments on low completion rates and failure to meet work force needs and no specific success targets. The distressing news eight months later is that in spite of at least one heroic effort I know of, no one, including the Massachusetts community colleges, have put a plan or a reply on the table.

My grade for last semester remains “F.”  My batting average I don’t know yet. Still working in extra innings with two to complete the course.

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.


San Francisco isn't only Calif. community college in accreditation meltdown

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Two California community colleges are ahead of City College of San Francisco in coping with accreditation threat. Special trustees or a takeover could loom, while accreditor warns CCSF faculty about misleading statements.

For-profits take brunt of new Cal Grant cuts

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California's new financial aid cuts are aimed squarely at career colleges, another sign that the battle over for-profit regulation may be moving to the states.


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