How Community Colleges Can Reach Obama's Goals

Americans have long prided ourselves on our higher education system, but lately a much more negative image has emerged. The U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries in postsecondary attainment, and large gaps in college access and completion remain for low-income and minority students.

October 13, 2009

Americans have long prided ourselves on our higher education system, but lately a much more negative image has emerged. The U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries in postsecondary attainment, and large gaps in college access and completion remain for low-income and minority students.

In July, President Obama announced a plan to close these gaps and to reverse the slide in overall postsecondary achievement. His plan recognizes the central role community colleges can and must play in getting more students to attend and complete college. This is particularly important for the growing number of non-traditional students – those who balance work and family obligations with their studies and who represent the majority on 2- and 4-year college campuses today.

To ensure that the country can maintain its competitive footing and close gaps in attainment among traditionally underrepresented groups, President Obama called for an additional five million community college graduates by 2020. The administration proposed to spend $12 billion over the next 10 years to support reform efforts by colleges and states. The legislation is now moving through Congress.

Can community colleges deliver the additional graduates to meet the ambitious goal? In 2007, the latest year for which data are available, community colleges awarded about 855,000 associate degrees and occupational certificates. To meet the president’s target, we estimate that community colleges will have to increase the number of associate degree and certificate graduates by at least 280,000 per year on average over the next 10 years, an annual increase of 33 percent over the current rate.

One thing is clear: enrollment increases alone will not be enough to reach the goal. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that undergraduate enrollment will increase by 12 percent by 2018. Even if 2-year college enrollment increases substantially outpace those of higher education institutions generally, that alone would not get enough students to the goal. In addition to continuing to expand the number of students who enroll in college, community colleges will have to increase the rate at which students complete their programs. And there is substantial room for improvement. The latest available data suggest that only about 35 percent of community college entrants complete a certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years.

So colleges won’t be able to reach the goal by continuing business as usual. And while many community colleges have tried to improve, these efforts typically involve “boutique” innovations that serve small numbers of students, but leave the basic functioning of the institution unchanged. Community colleges will only be able to produce the needed increases in productivity by making broad systemic changes in the way they operate. And since community colleges are primarily funded and regulated by state governments, those systemic changes will only occur if states put in place policies that promote and support needed college reforms.

What specific changes are needed in community college operations to enable them to help meet the president’s goal? Recent research provides some guidance on this question.

Strengthen the pipeline to college. Too many students arrive at community colleges academically unprepared for college-level work. Nearly 60 percent of recent high school graduates who enter higher education through community colleges take at least one remedial course. Clearly, college preparation for secondary students needs to be strengthened. What can colleges do to help make this happen? Increasingly 2- and 4-year institutions are administering college placement tests to high school sophomores and juniors. Many high school students do not realize that they are not making adequate progress toward college. “Early testing” reveals this problem and gives them a chance to strengthen their skills before they graduate. This promising strategy is the focus of several ongoing studies. One recent study using data on students entering the California State University found that participating in early testing reduces the probability that students will require remediation in math and English once they enroll in college.

Another approach being tried by a growing number of colleges and schools across the country is to offer college courses to students while they are still in high school. This can help students learn what is expected of them in college. A study we conducted in Florida indicated that students who take such “dual enrollment” courses are more likely to graduate from high school and to enroll in college, and they earn more college credits three years after graduation.

Efforts to improve college preparation cannot be confined to high school students, however. Each year around 2.5 million adults who lack a high school credential or basic English literacy enroll in adult basic skills programs through community colleges, schools, and community centers. Many of these students can benefit from programs that seek to accelerate their progression to college-level career-technical programs by integrating the teaching of basic skills with instruction in occupational skills and knowledge. When we studied one such model in Washington State, we found that students in the program were almost four times as likely to earn a college-level occupational credential within two years as were similar students not in the program.

Provide clearer guidance and pathways for students. Many students arrive at community colleges not only academically unprepared but also lacking in skills and knowledge that are essential for college success. A study we conducted found that students who took a “college success” course, which helps students learn how to study and take tests, manage their time, and develop college and career plans, were nearly 10 percent more likely than other students to earn a degree or transfer to a public university within six years. A study at Chaffey College in California by the nonprofit research organization MDRC found positive benefits for probationary students of a program that included a college success course and required visits to the college’s "success centers."

Recent research by James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University and colleagues comparing community colleges with private, for-profit career colleges suggests that the more structured programs and guidance provided by the career colleges may lead to substantially better educational outcomes for students whose demographic characteristics and educational backgrounds are similar to those who enroll in community colleges. Additional studies are underway to test these findings further.

Explore ways to accelerate college attainment, particularly by students needing remediation. Studies indicate that students whose college placement exam scores are close to the cutoff point that is used to assess whether a student is ready for college-level coursework do as well in college-level courses whether or not they first take remedial courses. This finding has led a growing number of community colleges to “mainstream” students who are not far below college level directly into college-level courses with added supports, thus accelerating their progress toward a credential. Preliminary analyses by the Community College of Baltimore County and other colleges that were early adopters of acceleration strategies for remedial students show promising results. More rigorous studies of acceleration strategies are currently being conducted by CCRC and other researchers.

Align resources to support student success. A study we completed in Florida in 2006 found that colleges with the greatest success in graduating disadvantaged students do more to align their academic programs and student support services toward the goal of helping students complete.

To better promote success, it appears that not only do particular student support services need to be in place — including in-depth orientations, proactive advising, early warning systems, and well-organized tutoring and other academic supports — but those services must be well coordinated among themselves and with academic programs. Seamless integration of programs and services from the student’s perspective and collaboration among faculty, staff, and administration are what seem to contribute most to student success. This finding is reinforced by research on organizational effectiveness in other sectors outside of education. A growing movement among community colleges nationally, led by initiatives such as Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, emphasizes the importance of using data on student progression to continuously align and improve programs and services to support student success. In addition to aligning programs and services within the institution, research indicates that students benefit when colleges build strong connections with employers and baccalaureate programs and other outside partners.

Each of these reforms appears promising, but they will not be adequate to meet the president’s ambitious goals if they are carried out in isolation. They must become part of a comprehensive strategy for improving student outcomes that will only succeed if colleges have strong incentives to pursue them. On its own, the $1.2 billion per year proposed by the Obama administration would provide important seed funding, but that figure represents less than 3 percent of national expenditures by community colleges. These dollars alone won’t yield the needed improvements. More than half of community college funding comes from states and localities (only 15 percent comes from federal sources), and those resources also need to be directed toward comprehensive strategy. That is why the administration has proposed a strong role for state policy.

There is wide variation across states in the rates at which community college students complete credentials. Indeed our research suggests that, after controlling for student demographics and institutional characteristics, the factor with the largest effect on community college graduation rates is the state in which a college is located. So state policy has a substantial bearing on college performance. As we observed when we studied the Ford Foundation’s Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, an effort to strengthen community college state policy, changes in state policy can support efforts by community colleges to increase success by students, particularly those from underrepresented populations.

The bill recently passed by the House provides support for states to use performance measures and strengthen data systems to promote evidence-based improvements in practice and policy. It also provides a key role for states in promoting sharing of effective approaches to ensure that innovations that have strong empirical support are adopted by colleges broadly, not just by the lucky few that receive federal grants. We hope that these aspects of the legislation will be adopted and even strengthened in the Senate version.

Research suggests that community colleges can help meet the President’s goal for increasing postsecondary attainment. To do this, colleges will have to change the way they do business, and states will need to motivate and support colleges in making these changes. Both will have to rely more on evidence of what works to improve student success on a wide scale. The legislation making its way through Congress provides a sound framework for the needed reforms and a real chance for five million more Americans to have the benefits of a college credential.


Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Thomas Bailey is the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center and of the National Center for Postsecondary Research, also housed at Teachers College.

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