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AACC calls on colleges to redesign, reinvent and reset


(From left) Mark Milliron of Western Governors University moderates a panel with the co-chairs of the 21st-Century Commission: Augustine Gallego, Kay McClenney and Jerry Sue Thornton.

​ORLANDO, Fla. — The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) this weekend released a highly anticipated report on the challenges facing community colleges and a blueprint on addressing them, which can be summed up in three words: redesign, reinvent and reset.

The report, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future,” highlights the role of open-access community colleges, from encouraging civic engagement to meeting workforce development needs. It was also candid about their shortcomings.

“What we find today are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions,” it said.

The report, which was crafted by the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges—a blue-ribbon commission of community college leaders and supporters—details several of those shortcomings. For example, only 46 percent of students who enter community college focused on earning a credential attain that goal, transfer to a four-year institution or are still enrolled six years later. The rates are even lower among minority and low-income students.

All sectors of education share the blame for those deficiencies. A significant number of high school students are not prepared for college, with about 60 percent of community college students taking at least one developmental course. Four-year institutions often make it difficult for two-year college students to transfer credits and are reluctant to share data about transfer students and their performance.

The report doesn’t shy away from community colleges’ weaknesses in this area, noting two-year colleges lack structure and coherence in academic planning, advising, career counseling and student aid.

How to fix it

Identifying the problems was only part of the report. It also outlined prospective solutions (see video, below). The commission focused on three broad areas of improvement: redesigning students’ educational experience, reinventing institutional roles and resetting the system. The commission included seven recommendations under those three areas, from improving college readiness, to strategically targeting public and private investments.

During the opening plenary at the annual AACC convention on Saturday, AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus fleshed out several of the recommendations. One of the recommendations is to close the skills gap by focusing career and technical programs on better preparing students for local jobs and a global economy. Bumphus added some of the efforts to address this would include stackable credentials and better use of labor market data to target programs to meet local workforce needs. Colleges also need to “ramp up” partnerships with businesses and government agencies and develop a national credentialing system, he said.

Just as candid as the report was about shortcomings, Bumphus didn’t mince words about the challenges ahead in ushering in the changes.

“This is going to be hard work,” he said.

Rethinking resources

Part of the hard work will include nixing what doesn’t work. That includes having the will to turn down ideas and programs that don’t mesh with the mission of community colleges.

“We need to engage governing boards and others in learning to say ‘no’ to things that don’t meet our learning objectives—and mean it,” Bumpus said.

For example, colleges cannot keep increasing enrollments or adding new programs while public funding continues to decrease, he said.

Aside from securing more public funding and seeking new streams of support from foundations and businesses, community colleges must reallocate the resources they already have, the report said. That includes closing programs that are not in tune with colleges’ goals and redirecting those resources, noted the three co-chairs of the commission.

Many colleges have “boutique” programs that are good, but they often serve only a few students, and some are geared toward industries with few available jobs, said Kay McClenney, a co-chair of the commission and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. She recently visited a college that offered about 2,400 courses, but 90 percent of students were enrolled in 20 of those courses.

“That’s an institutional resource right there,” she said.

McClenney noted that colleges can also develop more consortia, in part, to share resources—another recommendation in the AACC report. The partnerships could cover a range of expenses, from workforce development programs to data collection and analytics.

Some examples

On Sunday, members of the commission discussed specific ideas to illustrate what colleges can do to reach the goals of the report. For example, to forge closer ties with four-year universities—in order to strengthen articulation agreements, develop clear paths to a baccalaureate and help students acclimate to university life—partnering four-year institutions could set up university centers on community college campuses, said Myrtle Dorsey, chancellor of St. Louis Community College (Missouri), who served on the commission and is chair of the AACC board of directors.

Commission member Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, noted new ways to disperse funding could serve as an incentive for colleges to focus on student success. Rather than tying funding to enrollment rates, funding could be based on certain milestones, such as a college’s performance in moving students out of remediation courses, the numbers of students who earn at least 12 credits or the number of students who are ready to transfer to a baccalaureate college.

Several commissioners said that it’s also important to include faculty and students in rethinking the college experience. For example, providing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff to share ideas on reaching student success goals is crucial.

“This fuels your faculty’s soul,” said Jennifer Lara, a commissioner and professor at Anne Arundel Community College (Maryland).

Next steps

To move on the recommendations, AACC will convene an implementation team comprising community college leaders. Although its members have not been finalized, it will include several members of the 21st-Century Commission.

The association will also develop a strategic plan to support the commission’s recommendations. It will include a 21st-Century Center to coordinate work on implementing the recommendations. The center will also serve as a clearinghouse for research and institutional strategies, gather promising practices and promote leadership development.

The report was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Kresge Foundation, ACT and the Educational Testing Service. The commission was co-chaired by McClenney; Augustine Gallego, chancellor emeritus of the San Diego Community College District (California); and Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio).