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A Call to Progress

munity colleges. They educate 4 percent of the entire U.S. population13 million studentseach year. Most of the countrys college freshmen and sophomores are in community colleges, whose relatively inexpensive tuition makes them a boon for Americans seeking a brighter future on constricted budgets. More than any other set of institutions, the nations nearly twelve hundred community colleges are well positioned to meet the increasing demand for skilled workers in manufacturing, technology, health care, and other high-growth elds. They are a necessity for a nation trying, in an age of austerity, to reverse a steady decline in higher education attainment relative to the rest of the world. But they dont always deliver on that promise. While access has expanded over the years, outcomes for students have not necessarily improved. So a new reform movement is taking hold, and community colleges are being pushed to achieve better results. Following repeated calls for improved graduation rates from national foundations, the Obama administration, and state governments, in 2012 the sectors own champion, the American

ur country has awakened to the importance of com-


Association of Community Colleges, called student success rates unacceptably low and career training inadequately connected to job market needs.1 Simultaneous recognition of community colleges importance and poor student outcomes translates into enormous pressure. State funding is increasingly being tied to graduation rates (rather than to the number of students enrolled, the traditional method).2 Federal and state agencies are requiring more public reporting on completion and employment outcomes. And for-prot competitorsinvesting in technology-based instructional delivery and using private-sector marketing techniquesare enrolling more and more students, including the low-income and minority populations long served by community colleges. To attract students and public dollars in an era of accountability, transparency, and competition, community colleges must deliver signicantly more degrees of higher quality at a lower per-pupil cost to an increasingly diverse student populationan equation that adds up to an immense challenge. In the balance is not just the colleges survival but also continued opportunity for Americansparticularly the less advantagedto access the knowledge and skills they need to have a secure future and to fuel our nations economic growth. But improvement is not coming easily, or quickly. Almost a decade into a new reform movement, there is not yet complete agreement about what community colleges should aim for, let alone good systems for measuring whether those goals are being attained. And there is not yet even universal acceptance of what, to most reformers, is a vital premise: it doesnt matter how many students enter community colleges doors unless they exit with a meaningful credential in hand.


We are moving in that direction, however. With few exceptions, improving the rates at which students earn degrees and certicates lies at the center of recent change strategies, from state policy reform to nancial aid redesign to eorts by state systems and nonprot organizations to improve institutional practice. Completion matters to students; holding a degree or certicate is strongly correlated with having a good job with decent wages. Any signicant attention to completion, then, is a dramatic improvement over the days when community colleges responded to ever-increasing enrollment numbers by developing more and more programs and courses, paying too little attention to whether students were succeeding in them. As institutions and policy makers aim to improve community college completion rates, though, they must not do so at the expense of access. Its easy to increase the graduation rate if you just stop admitting the students least likely to succeed, if you invent policies and practices that eectively close doors to the rapidly growing numbers of minority and low-income young people who want to enrollgroups that historically have more trouble nishing college. And while nobodys recommending that as a remedy, it must be guarded against as a possible unintended consequence of the drive to improve completion rates. But even maintaining access and improving graduation are not sucient. After all, students dont go to community college to graduate; most go to acquire skills relevant to the careers they will pursue either directly out of community college or by way of a four-year school. Just as institutions work to increase the numbers of students who complete, they must put equal eort into ensuring the quality of their oerings and their instruction so that students leave well equipped to succeed in whatever comes next.


Facing a steady drumbeat to improve student outcomes, community colleges across the country are seeking more guidance on how to meet higher expectations. Already, a group of talented community college researchers, practitioners, and advocates has emerged. Some devote themselves to devising and testing the eectiveness of specic practices to increase success: learning communities that connect small groups of students across several classes, early warning systems to give struggling students the help they need, additional nancial aid for students who achieve certain milestones, mandatory courses in study skills and career planning. Others are taking a more systemic approach, seeking to change state and federal policy or improve community college practice at multiple institutions at the same time. Nearly all of these strategies aim primarily to increase the number of students who complete, and evidence suggests that they work only some of the time.3 Indeed, community college graduation rates have not signicantly increased over the past decade.4 This book seeks to contribute to the growing body of knowledge regarding how to increase community college student success, and thus help institutional leaders and policy makers understand important strategies for improving degree completion, equity, learning, and post-graduation outcomes. It draws on examples of what is happening at exceptional community colleges that were named nalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence over its rst two years, as well as on understanding gained through the extensive data-gathering and selection process that begins with consideration of over one thousand community colleges each year. Proles of the seven colleges that received the Aspen Prizes highest recognition and are highlighted in this book can be found in appendix A.


The Aspen Prize is built on a four-part denition of critical community college outcomes: Completion. Do students earn associates degrees and other meaningful credentials while in community college, and bachelors degrees if they transfer? Equity. Do colleges work to ensure equitable outcomes for minority and low-income students, and others often underserved? Learning. Do colleges set expectations for what students should learn, measure whether they are doing so, and use that information to improve? Labor market. Do graduates get well-paying jobs? Pursuing and making signicant progress on all of these goals is how exceptional community colleges ensure that diverse populations of students get what they came for: the knowledge and skills that will aord them a better life than they would have had otherwise. Achieving any one of these goals is better than improving access alone. Achieving all of them means a high-quality education for students, and a much brighter future for our country (see gure 1). By starting with a holistic denition of excellence, measuring success against that denition, and then identifying practices and policies that align to high levels of student success, the Aspen Prize aims to help college leaders, educators, and policy makers better understand practices and policies that improve student outcomes across entire institutions as well as ones that may impede those eorts. This book sets forth whats been learned about exceptional community colleges, especially from the schools recognized during the



Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, indicators of community college excellence

Do students earn associates degrees and other meaningful credentials, and bachelors degrees after they transfer?

Community college completion/transfer rates are under 40%. Completion of a credential leads to better employment and wage prospects. Completion data enables colleges to set goals and others to compare colleges. There is strong evidence that college rigor has diminished. Teaching students so they learn and develop skills is the core business of colleges, so this must be assessed. Professors cannot improve instruction without good information about whats working and whats not in their classrooms. To prepare a skilled work force, colleges need to understand whether their programs are aligned with labor market needs. Students post-graduation outcomes tell colleges whether their programs are succeeding and improving. Students should be able to choose a college and program knowing whether theyll be rewarded for their investment. Minority college students have historically succeeded at lower rates than others, yet can be successful with added supports. Increasing success for minority and lowincome students is necessary to meet the countrys growing need for bettertrained workers. Expanding access and success helps fulfill the ideal of equal opportunity.

Do community colleges set expectations for what students should learn, measure whether they are doing so, and use that information to improve?

Labor market outcomes

Do students find long-term employment after graduation and earn a living wage?

Do colleges work to ensure equitable outcomes for minority and low-income students, and others often underserved?


rst year of the Aspen Prize.5 Over the past two years, the Aspen Institute has engaged national experts in higher education research, practice, policy, and leadership to help gure out how to compare such varied institutions through the collection of qualitative and quantitative information. At the end of each analytic cycle is a $1 million prize, which, together with the promise of substantial publicity for the nalists and winners, has led to very high levels of participation.6 National data sets have limitations, so the Aspen Institute gathers information from multiple sources (see appendix B). In addition, the prize process takes into account the very dierent contexts in which community colleges operate and the many related variables, including student demographics, program oerings, regional economies, and state policies. The top-performing colleges in the prize competition vary signicantly in demographics and program focus, showing that community college excellence comes in many packages (see gure 2). Investigating and comparing quantitative and qualitative results at such diverse institutions requires accepting some measure of ambiguity. Among the greatest challenges are comparing completion rates at large urban and small rural colleges, or those at schools that award primarily career and technical credentials as opposed to those preparing most students for four-year transfer. In the face of such challenges, some resist the idea of transparently comparing community colleges based on imperfect measures. But how else can we identify those exceptional colleges that are, systematically, doing the hard and smart work needed to achieve measurably high and improving levels of student success? The data available for analyzing institutional successas opposed to



Aspen Prize winners and nalists with distinction (2011, 2013)

Students Number 25 and of students older 25,425 22% Credentials in career/ Underrepresented technical minorities elds 48% 26%

Community college CUNY Kingsborough Community College Lake Area Technical Institute Miami Dade College Santa Barbara City College Valencia College Walla Walla Community College West Kentucky Community and Technical College

Location Brooklyn, NY (urban) Watertown, SD (small town) Miami, FL (urban) Santa Barbara, CA (urban) Orlando, FL (urban) Walla Walla, WA (rural) Paducah, KY (small town)




95,166 28,763

37 36

85 25

30 24













Source: U.S. Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Data System, 2011.

programmatic successare not perfect, and probably never will be, given the enormous number of variables associated with delivering a community college education. But that cannot prevent us from rigorously evaluating community college success using whatever data are available and nding new ways that entire


colleges can address the urgent need to improve community college student outcomes. The core premises of this book are, rst, that even in differing contexts, there are important practices and policies that are associated with high levels of student success in completion, learning, and post-graduation success, including for underrepresented minority and low-income students; and second, that if professors, sta, and leaders at more institutionsno matter their contextexamine and learn from those practices, students will benet greatly. The book is organized into ve chapters. The rst four align with the four-part denition of success used by the Aspen Prize: completion, equity, learning, and labor market outcomes. These chapters discuss the importance of community colleges making progress in each of these four areas, provide examples of how colleges have succeeded, and lay out the complexities of measuring that success. The nal chapter discusses the critical role leaders play within those community colleges that have achieved exceptional student outcomes. No single practice or policy featured in this book can be shown with absolute certainty to have improved student outcomes. But the high and signicantly improving levels of success these community colleges have achieved for students in completion, equitable outcomes, learning, and labor market success after graduating are simply too dierent from those at similar institutions to be accidental. Failing to act on them risks delaying progress that could help millions of students who enter community colleges hoping to get an education that will give them opportunities to work and support their familiessomething too few of them actually receive today.


We owe it to todays and tomorrows community college students to acknowledge that some colleges do better than others. Most importantly, we owe it to every incoming generation of community college students to understand and replicate whatever it is that has allowed exceptional colleges to achieve great outcomes for students.