Measuring and understanding the true impact of community colleges

Measuring and understanding the true impact of community colleges

Several recent reports have been alarming those of us in higher education who care deeply about the future of community colleges and those who attend them. One is Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream, a new report from the Century Foundation task force on “preventing community colleges from becoming separate and unequal.” Some of its findings were startling, particularly the discovery that the majority of students who enter community colleges after high school (81.4 percent) say they plan to eventually get a four-year degree, but only 11.6 percent actually do. As someone who has spent his career working with and advocating for these students, I find this shocking and disheartening.

Another equally disappointing statistic comes from the Delta Cost Project by Tyler Kingkade via the Huffington Post, in the article “Community College Students Often Fail to Achieve Bachelor’s Degree: Study.” Its finding reveals that funding for community colleges has been woefully inadequate, rising by only 1 percent in the 10 years from 1999 to 2009.

Discouraging as these numbers may seem, they don’t tell the whole story. When many researchers and policy makers look at community college graduation rates, they look only at first-time, full-time college attendees who complete the associate degree program in three years. In fact, the majority of community college students attend part-time and many have prior college experience. According to national data from the American Association of Community Colleges, 41 percent of students are full-time, while 59 percent are part-time. Moreover, the actual locations of community colleges, and the specific communities they serve, influence their retention and graduation rates. Nationally, 38 percent of community college students earn an associate degree within three years—and that number differs significantly by region and state.HE rept

According to the 2007 report of the state’s Task Force on Retention and Completion Rates at Community Colleges, the average graduation rate here in Massachusetts among its 15 community colleges was 17.4 percent; that number was even lower for community colleges serving the Boston area. Another telling statistic from Massachusetts is the number of community college students who qualified for remedial or pre-college courses: 69.6 percent for students from the Boston area, and 61.3 percent for the state as a whole.

In Boston, there are many four-year public and private colleges and universities from which high school graduates with good grades and high SAT scores can choose. For those who are less prepared academically but who still desire a college education, community colleges are a reasonable and accessible option. Unfortunately, a large majority of these students are not college ready and spend several semesters taking pre-college courses that don’t count toward their degrees. Even when they do eventually graduate, their achievement often goes untracked, because of the way in which degree-completion is measured (see above).

Fortunately, there are progressive changes in the works to better measure this graduation rate. Some of these changes have been proposed in the National Governors Association’s June 2010 Report and in the more recent Action Plan of the U.S. Department of Education developed under the leadership of Professor Thomas Bailey of Columbia University. In particular, the Bailey report gets it right in its recommendation of “a more complete and accurate measure of community college success by including part-time students, as well as improving the reporting of transfer students and developing methods to measure the success of those who transfer in from other colleges.”

To truly understand the impact of community colleges in America’s higher education system, we need to look at their role expansively. The many community colleges that serve the urban, mostly low-income students often assume the role that was played by high schools in the past: building an American identity and instilling qualities of citizenship for the next generation. They also fill gaps in college readiness, especially in math, reading and writing.

The Century Foundation report does a good job in recommending the introduction of outcomes-based funding in higher education, with additional support based on needs. And I would underscore the last part: “additional support based on needs.” Funding based strictly on traditional outcomes measures would dramatically favor the more selective colleges and universities. These institutions attract and admit students in whom much investment has already been made by parents, local schools and municipal governments.

Before joining Northeastern University College of Professional Studies (CPS), I was an Academic Dean at Bunker Hill Community College for nine years, and this makes me personally aware of the important work that community colleges do. Unlike universities, community colleges are very flexible in how they develop programs and set course schedules and instructional modes. This let us experiment with a variety of approaches to serving the needs of our students. For example, when one of our professors proposed a “midnight college” for adult learners who wished to attend college but could not leave work until 11 pm, the president and I said, “Yes!”. As the supervising dean, I was delighted to welcome the first cohort over coffee and pastries as they headed into a three-hour class that ended at 2:30 am. (You can see my colleague, professor Wick Sloane, with his midnight class in this video.)

Bunker Hill now sends many of its graduates to Northeastern University and, specifically  to CPS, to complete their bachelor’s degrees and, in many cases, continue to graduate school. At CPS, we work closely with Bunker Hill and many other community colleges to enable their graduates to complete career-oriented bachelor’s degrees that meet their complex schedules. We also offer special scholarships to put a Northeastern University education within reach. Our Degree-Completion Fast-Track program, for example, allows associate degree holders to complete a bachelor’s degree in 18 months.

With our 100 percent online degrees, including IT, Health Management, Finance and Accounting Management, and our on-site and hybrid degrees CPS plays a vital role in helping community college graduates complete college degrees that lead to jobs. Upon graduation, many advance their careers in local industries, which, in turn, bolsters our community’s economy and its breadth and diversity.

Whether experienced professionals or recent high-school grads or anywhere in between, the ethnically and economically diverse students of community colleges represent a cross-section of our community’s rich fabric. It behooves us all, in the larger picture, to support their education and their advancement—because these efforts will only strengthen our communities, neighborhoods, towns and cities, as we move forward as a nation to meet the challenges of the future.

About Len Mhlaba

Dr. Sondlo Leonard (Len) Mhlaba is the associate dean of Undergraduate Academic and Faculty Affairs for the College of Professional Studies (CPS). He is responsible for issues related to the undergraduate curriculum, faculty recruitment and development, market and competitive positioning, and needs assessment. Prior to joining CPS, he served at Bunker Hill Community College as the dean of Arts and Sciences and as the dean of Mathematics, Behavioral, and Social Sciences.

One comment

  1. Great post! I enjoyed reading I like how the community college saw a need for something and the administrators agreed to even start the night classes. It showed that the college thinks the students needs are being considered

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