September 2011

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Community Colleges: Ready for Prime Time?

Diane TroyerRod A. Risley, Executive Director
Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society


From the days of its inception, it seems that the two-year college has had to fight for legitimacy constantly, both in terms of perception and allocation of resources. By its very moniker—“junior” college—its name implied to the general public that these educational institutions were not quite ready for prime time. Thus, our institutions, and organizations associated with them, were destined, it seems, to be the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education—“We just get no respect.”

But, let’s put this in perspective: We are the new kids on the block. Our institutions are just a century old in a nation whose senior colleges date back to the early 1600s. And the reality is that the majority of community colleges did not come onto the scene until the 1960s—just 50 years ago. Yet today we enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in higher education, over seven million students—and if you include students completing non-credit classes, the number swells to 13-14 million.

Impatient, perhaps. Passionate, yes. Missionaries, undoubtedly. Today, we stand on the shoulders of pioneers who believed access to education was essential to ensure the future of our democracy. My college president, Dr. Thomas M. Spencer of San Jacinto College, founded five two-year colleges in the state of Texas. When I was a student in 1974, he gave me a tour of the last college he established. As we walked across the parking lot, I stopped to ask him a question: “Why do you do this? Why do you keep pushing yourself to start another new college?” He said matter-of-factly, “Rod, what you don’t understand is that we are on a mission.” He was correct—I did not fully understand exactly what he was telling me at the time—but I certainly stood witness to his passion. Now, I have come to understand more fully what he meant by “mission.”

Providing “access” to higher education to fulfill dreams for a better life has been central to the mission of community colleges. We are committed to the principles of the democratization of education as key to having an educated citizenry. And like those who walked before us, we dreamed of the day when two-year colleges would be recognized for what they do well—unlocking human potential through quality instruction and personalized attention.

Fast forward 35 years, from my conversation with Dr. Spencer, to today. Never have two-year colleges received the measure of national acclaim, from education associations, corporations, foundations, and even politicians, as we have of late. In fact, in the last three U.S. presidents’ State of the Union addresses, only one higher education institution is extolled for its vital importance to the future of our country—the community college.

Hardly a day goes by that a positive story about community colleges does not appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA TODAY, Inside Higher Ed, or on CNN or one of the major news networks. In fact, recently the success of our Community College Completion Corps was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Today, Ivy League schools and selective senior colleges in the country, such as the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Cornell, Columbia, UC Berkley, Georgetown, Bucknell and Amherst, are recruiting community college students aggressively. The wealthiest foundations in the world—Gates, Ford, Lumina, and Kellogg—are directing millions of dollars to community colleges. In October of last year, the Obama Administration held the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. I am very proud that Phi Theta Kappa helped select the students who participated. Subsequent summits have been held by AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees, Phi Theta Kappa, and now here at NISOD.

We are in the spotlight as never before—the dream of our pioneers appears to have come true. The primary question is—are we ready? Are we ready for prime time? What will this spotlight show?

Part of the reason for the spotlight focusing on community colleges has been the surge in enrollments in our institutions throughout the country at unprecedented rates. Nationwide in 2009, the enrollment increase was 12% over that of 2008, and nearly 17% over 2007. Most observers may think such an increase is normal and to be expected, as community college enrollments always surge during periods of economic decline. Yes, but this time is very different.

While part of the increase in enrollments is attributable to workforce training, the largest percent of the increase is attributable to full-time, traditional-aged freshmen. Why? The tuition cost gap between public community colleges and public universities continues to widen—and now the difference has reached 67%. What this means is that when the economy begins to recover, the enrollments will not decline at the same rates as in the past. This new demographic—the number of full-time freshmen enrolling in community colleges—is likely to continue to increase due to many factors.

The ramifications are significant because these students will place unprecedented demands on our institutions to provide the “complete college experience”—honors programs, internships, service learning programs, co-curricular experiences, and access to cutting-edge technology. And we have a responsibility to meet their needs just as we must for any other category of students.

So we are in the spotlight because we provide access, provide quality instruction, respond quickly, and cost less. But we have to be careful of what we hope for because it just might come true. In fact, it has come true.

We have wanted the spotlight, and now we are in it—meaning much more will be known about us, warts and all.

Historically, we have emphasized access, with the philosophy that a student has a “right to fail” once being admitted to a community college. In other words, we have focused on access but spent very little time emphasizing student success—and we have even resisted such measures. But I promise you, there is a nationwide movement gathering powerful momentum that will subject our institutions to accountability measures that may make us very uncomfortable.

The current administration has set as a highly profiled goal for America to once again have the highest proportion of citizens who have earned a higher education credential by 2020, which means an increase of 5 million students earning a credential or degree—doubling our current numbers.

At the same time, governors and legislatures from 23 states have committed to holding education institutions to new levels of accountability—including measuring rates of retention and degree and credential completion. And recently, the National Governors Association announced that college completion would become part of their agenda and called on colleges to set common definitions and standards for rates of graduation, transfer, times for degree and certificate completion, successful completion of developmental courses, and much more.

Make no mistake, state funding formulas and federal grant requirements will be modified to reflect “completion” rates, rather than being based exclusively on enrollment numbers. Performance-based funding is coming to our neighborhoods, whether we like it or not.

Some of these policies will be good for our institutions and students while some policies will make us uncomfortable. So it would appear that the best plan of action for our institutions at this time would be to get a head start and attempt to define accountability standards for ourselves before they are defined for us.

Answering this call, Phi Theta Kappa has joined with the five leading national organizations serving community colleges—AACC, ACCT, NISOD, the League for Innovation, and the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE)—to spearhead an effort to take the first steps toward helping our colleges meet the Community College Completion Challenge. Never in the history of community colleges has there been such a sense of urgency or collective effort to effect change in our institutions as there is today.

The completion initiative is as much about streamlining processes, reviewing support systems, and developing culture as it is about the end result of increasing the number of credentials or degrees earned.

Let’s talk for a minute about culture. I am increasingly frustrated by what our society appears to value—and not value. We value our professional athletes, but we don’t value our instructors. We certainly value being entertained; we value learning less. We value knowing more about what people are doing to each other than for each other. We value buying more than we value providing for those in need.

I believe our society promotes a culture of mediocrity. I asked one of Phi Theta Kappa’s Convention keynote speakers recently, “Why must we consistently ‘dumb things down,’ denigrate learning and the learned?” She answered that this practice has been a part of our culture for quite some time. She added, however: “If getting good grades and studying hard makes you a nerd, if being into technology makes you a geek, if being genuinely interested in studying something makes you a dweeb, then be a nerd, be a geek, be a dweeb. Your country needs you; you will be a better date, a better friend, a better parent than those people who are just too cool for school.”

So starting today, I ask for your commitment that in your communities and in your colleges you will help to develop a culture where it is cool to be smart. We need the nerds, the geeks, and the dweebs. They are the “coolest things going.”

The culture today for supporting completion in many higher education institutions may be best characterized by the professor who stands before students in a large lecture hall and proudly boasts, “Look to your left and look to your right—one of you will not complete this course.”  This culture of a “right to fail” must be replaced with a culture of completion that provides support systems to encourage and help students complete.

Many say that students come to community colleges with no intention of completing a degree or credential. Thus, colleges often excuse themselves from the responsibility of supporting student success and completion.

While it may be true that there is value in completing even one class, it is an abdication of responsibility for us not to take the time to help students understand the benefits of completing and the consequences of not.

So, with the spotlight on us, budgets stretched beyond belief, and enrollments bursting, what can we do?

There are many ways we can move the needle without breaking the bank:

  • Talk to students. It does not cost a penny to talk with students to let them know the benefits of completing and the consequences of not.
  • Ask those who want to transfer before earning their associate degrees if they really want to increase their likelihood of never earning a baccalaureate degree. Statistics show this is true.
  • Ask those who want to transfer before earning a degree if they really want to provide the university with a license to make them take additional courses or repeat courses. Do these students have that much extra money and time?
  • Ask those who want to transfer before earning an associate degree how well they think they will compete for a job against those with credentials—when an unexpected life experience requires them to stop out and enter the job market.
  • Ask those who want to take just one class and not complete a credential if they feel confident that by 2019 they will be able to compete for livable-wage jobs that demand at least two years of higher education.
  • Ask those who don’t think a credential is important if they really want to leave $400,000 in lifetime earnings on the table.
  • Set and articulate high expectations for your students—and show them how to get there. Most will rise to your lowest “high expectation.”
  • Recognize and celebrate success often—individually and collectively. If students qualify for recognition, show them the way. Don’t let them miss the opportunity. Be the first to unleash students’ potential by letting them know you believe in them. When they may not believe in themselves.
  • Tell them engagement is essential, tell them why, and show them how. Your encouragement will make all the difference. If you don’t feel talking to students about their success is important, why should the students feel success is important at all?
  • Tell them education is their primary “job,” and help direct them to financial resources.
  • Students don’t do optional. Make sure your college has a mandatory orientation and one that is meaningful and effective.
  • Discuss their career paths with them before they complete advisement forms and are assigned to classes.

As staff and instructors, we need for you to become champions—champions advocating for student success.Please don’t underestimate your influence and the difference you can make by talking with students, inside and outside the classroom. And, let’s not neglect those who show promise by thinking they will be just fine without your attention.

The completion initiative will require the collective efforts of all community college stakeholders—presidents, trustees, public and business leaders, students, faculty, staff, and administrators. We must develop within our institutions the confidence to expose our strengths and weaknesses. We must not fear revealing our “deficiencies.” We must commit to a culture where decisions are data-driven and embrace a culture of evidence as the first step toward developing a culture of completion. We must commit to becoming better at what we do, and that starts at our most vulnerable areas. Let’s take those who support us not only to our places of success. Rather, let’s have the courage to show them where we need help and that we have a strategy for how to become better.

The previous philosophy of providing access with a “right to fail” must be replaced with a philosophy and culture that provides “Access with the Opportunity to Succeed.” Let’s make sure our open doors cease being revolving doors.

I encourage all of you to commit to completion and to becoming champions of students, by helping them complete what they start. I encourage you to accept the Community College Completion Challenge, and to set your goals and publicize them throughout the community.

The Community College Completion Challenge is a call to action to our community colleges. Our nation’s economic prosperity and democracy are hanging in the balance.

Remarks presented at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence, Austin, Texas, May 31, 2011.



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