America’s Community College Problem

By Kevin Hansen

Author’s Note: This post was originally published for The Wagner Review.


Included in President Obama’s recently-announced 2013 budget is an $8 billion proposal for a Community College to Career Fund. If appropriated, these funds will be used to retrain two million out-of-work Americans and place them in high-demand, skilled jobs. It’s a worthy goal. However, such a proposal will fall far short of its potential if the U.S. does not first reduce its community college dropout rate. To reduce the community college dropout rate, policymakers must fundamentally reform the current system—ensuring that community colleges are more transparent, and have better accountability measures and more resources.

As the Greek philosopher Aristotle said more than two millennia ago, “Education is the best provision for old age.” Indeed, public education is still one of the wisest investments a government can make. In the U.S., high school graduates who continue their education and complete an associate degree earn an additional 30% in income over their lifetimes.Community college students who go on to earn their bachelor’s degree can boost that number to 75%. As part of their increased earnings, students who graduate contribute more tax revenue and use less government assistance over their lifetimes. Considering the enormous benefits that education provides to individuals and to society, the fact that more students do not complete a post-secondary degree costs the U.S. a great deal.

The majority of students who drop out of college begin their journey at a community college. Nationwide, community colleges enroll an estimated 45% of all students pursuing post-secondary degrees. Although students enrolled in these schools know that earning a degree is valuable, only 26% of them will complete a two- or four-year degree within six years.

It should come as no surprise that so many students drop out once one considers the intimidating set of obstacles standing between the average community college student and completing a degree. Any individual with a G.E.D. or high school diploma can typically enroll at a community college, and most students require significant remediation. In New York City, for example, according to a 2010 analysis performed by the New York State Education Department, a disturbing 79% of public high school graduates are not college-ready.

In addition to being underprepared academically, many community college students face other disadvantages. For example, 42% of community college students are the first in their family to attend college, compared to 30% of students across all post-secondary institutions. Additionally, community college students have significant demands on their time outside of class—30% of community college students work more than 20 hours per week and 39% attend school part-time.

Collectively, the problems facing our community colleges are daunting. Even if community colleges themselves operate at peak performance, the success of community colleges is still inextricably linked to the performance of the U.S.’s primary and secondary schools. While the U.S. will not be able to achieve post-secondary perfection anytime soon, there are a number of recently demonstrated opportunities to improve the prospects of degree-seeking community college students.

One promising tactic involves accelerating the remediation process, an approach taken by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Project (ALP). In ALP, students who fail to test into a standard college-level English course get a second chance. Rather than being held back for a full semester until they pass a developmental course, ALP students begin English 101 immediately and instead attend an extra thirty-minute writing workshop after class. By giving motivated students a chance to learn and providing them with the added instruction they need, ALP has improved the share of its students who successfully complete the remediation process by an annual average of roughly 18.5 percentage points.

A second demonstrated means of boosting community college graduation rates is to provide extra resources and financial incentives to targeted groups of students who have displayed financial need. Under the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), for example, select students who commit to study a core program on a full-time basis are provided free textbooks, free public transit, extra career advisement and partial tuition waivers. In exchange for this support, ASAP students are held to high standards—and are performing at high levels. Since ASAP began, an impressive 55% of its students earned their associate degree in three years, compared with 24.7% of similar City University of New York students and 16% of students at the average urban community college.

Programs like ALP and ASAP offer a glimpse of the tremendous societal returns possible from funding common sense public education initiatives. Even so, with more money should also come more accountability—and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) appears to agree. This past December, the AACC released the Voluntary Framework for Accountability (VFA), a tool that any community college in the nation will soon be able to use to measure their progress and benchmark their performance. Community colleges everywhere should embrace the accountability that the VFA offers and transparently publish their results. By reporting their performance under a system of national benchmarking, community colleges can better align their institutional priorities and better inform stakeholders of their needs and accomplishments.

Ultimately, by granting community colleges the resources they need and fostering higher levels of accountability and transparency, policymakers can cultivate system-wide improvement. However, government leaders themselves must share in this accountability. This past January, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke on this subject at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Mayor Emanuel told a story about a community college student he’d met who was both studying full-time during the day and working full-time in a Target warehouse at night. In addressing his fellow mayors, Mayor Emanuel stated,”I want the opportunity when that young man graduates…having worked full-time at Target at a warehouse, that…it has meaning for all of the sacrifices, all of the responsibility that they have shown.”

Each school year, by enrolling in community college, millions of other students demonstrate their own commitment to higher education. It’s time for more policymakers to follow suit.