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Community Colleges Need More Than Show and Tell

When the American Graduation Initiative (AGI) died a quick but painful death in the 11th hour of health reform budget negotiations last March, the promise of a stronger partnership between the federal government and community colleges was largely dashed. The two-year sector did get a couple of consolation prizes, however: $2 billion for expanded job training programs, and a White House Summit, hosted by second lady and Northern Virginia Community College Professor Jill Biden.

While it didn’t make up for what was lost in March, and it seemed to have been plagued by a late start in planning, the summit did occasion a few meaningful announcements (as these things tend to do). The Gates Foundation rolled out its latest round of community college investments, $35 million over five years in competitive grants designed to increase student completion rates. This came on the heels of the Lumina Foundation’s announcement of its new four-year, $15 million effort to help adults finish degrees that they started but didn’t finish, much of which will focus on the two-year sector. And the White House announced a new effort, entitled Skills for America’s Future, designed to increase industry collaboration with community colleges in all 50 states. (The Quick and the Ed has a good rundown on some of yesterday’s conversation.)

All of which is to say, there’s certainly a good deal of national energy and focus around community colleges that really wasn’t there a few years ago. But recall the impetus for AGI—the president set a goal for the United States to again lead the world in the share of adults with a post-secondary degree by 2020, and community colleges need to play a big role in that effort. Meanwhile, colleges are bursting at the seams right now with students avoiding a weak labor market. Many of them lack the basic infrastructure to accommodate demand and really help students navigate their way toward degrees and certificates. And most state governments, from which colleges receive the bulk of their financial support, are plugging huge deficits in part by reducing support for higher education. In a new article that reviews a wealth of recent research, Sara Goldrick-Rab concludes that we really need a multifaceted approach to improving student success in community colleges, a good deal of which will require significant new resources, applied in new ways.

So yes, let’s celebrate community colleges’ accomplishments and highlight their unrealized potential. But let’s also be honest about what it will take to dramatically increase their rates of success given the human and fiscal turmoil they’re facing today.