Time for practitioner-driven research to better inform campus reforms

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In speaking about the importance of advancing equity and economic mobility during his remarks at the 2022 AACC Annual, U.S. Education Under Secretary James Kvaal emphasized that “a strong community college might be the most important institution our country has for that goal.” High praise indeed from the U.S. Department of Education’s top higher education official. We might only add that this sentiment is especially true today, with our country and our students seeking to regain economic traction as we come out of the pandemic.

Community college leaders will need research-based solutions to successfully face current challenges while at the same time seizing the opportunities that lie ahead.

To this end, we were pleased to present an update at the 2022 AACC Annual on an important national project specifically designed to provide research in areas that community college presidents themselves judge to be the most important. We are calling it the Community College Research Exchange for Policy and Practice (CC-REPP).

While there’s a growing body of community college research, it is not always connected to the immediate needs of community college leaders who are implementing necessary reforms on their campuses. CC-REPP seeks to provide a remedy through an iterative process in three parts:

  • Develop a first-of-its-kind national practitioner-defined community college research agenda.
  • Engage those who study community colleges in this research agenda – and seek funding to support their research.
  • Share research findings in consumable formats with the practitioners and policymakers who started the cycle.

Partnering organizations

The strength of any new initiative of this kind is largely defined by the partners it attracts to support it. The managing partners for this project are two leading doctorate programs in community college leadership – one at the University of Maryland Global Campus and the other at the North Carolina State Belk Center.

Working with the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, we identified 10 states in which to conduct focus groups with community college presidents throughout fall 2021, asking them to identify key research topics that in their judgment will be most useful to community college practitioners throughout the country. Participating states were Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Topics for research

From these focus groups with presidents, a draft community college research agenda was developed that was later shared with presidents of Achieving the Dream’s Leader Colleges of Distinction for further vetting and prioritizing. The following practitioner-defined community college research agenda was presented at the 2022 AACC Annual. It consists of 14 high-priority research topics in three major categories. Brief descriptions of these research topics can be found here.

Access and equity:
• Community college bachelor’s degrees
• Dual enrollment
• Enrollment management
• Minoritized student populations

Management and planning:
• Community college 2.0
• Forecasting
• Funding models
• Governance
• Mergers/right-sizing institutions

Teaching and learning:
• Faculty recruitment and retention
• Instructional strategies
• Guided pathways: transfer and career
• Student supports
• Workforce

The next step in this project is to share this list of research topics with researchers, faculty members, doctoral students and others who study community colleges to identify which specific research studies might be most promising in the short term – with the potential to attract funding for this research. When research findings become available, our partners have pledged their assistance in disseminating them broadly so that they are actionable at the campus and state levels.

You can read more about this national project by going to our website.

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Lawrence Nespoli, Rey Garcia, Ken Ender and John Braxton are principals of the Community College Research Exchange for Policy and Practice (CC-REPP), a new national initiative.

(From top left, clockwise): Nespoli is a faculty member at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Garcia is program chair and professor in the University of Maryland Global Campus Doctorate Program in Community College Policy and Administration. Braxton is professor emeritus at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. Ender is a professor of practice in the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at North Carolina State University.