Grand Solution or Grab Bag?

In July, as U.S. automakers were emerging from bankruptcy, President Barack Obama dramatically announced the American Graduation Initiative at Macomb Community College, some 12 miles from Detroit, calling for a massive federal investment of $12 billion in the nation's community colleges. "Not since the passage of the original GI bill and the work of President Truman's Commission on Higher Education -- which helped to double the number of community colleges and increase by seven-fold enrollment in those colleges," the president stated, "have we taken such a historic step on behalf of community colleges in America." With the goal of restoring the U.S. to its global leadership role in postsecondary degree attainment -- it's now ranked No. 10 in degree attainment for 25- to 34-year-olds -- the initiative calls for a potpourri of strategies, ranging from producing 5 million more community college graduates by 2020 to creating a new online skills laboratory. Reacting to this initiative, Time magazine asked, "Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy?"

They cannot do it alone, but community colleges can be a big part of the solution. The problem, however, is that over the years, community colleges have been asked to serve multiple and often conflicting missions, invariably with inadequate resources.

America's community colleges serve as an inclusive bedrock that can provide a much needed corrective to the increasing exclusivity and segmentation of American life. Whereas our neighborhoods, communities, and schools are segregated by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the nation's community colleges enroll a spectrum of learners whose demographics cut across many of these dividing lines.

Since their founding in 1901, community colleges have consistently been overshadowed and snubbed by the nation's prestigious baccalaureate and graduate institutions, whose contemporary raison d'être is best captured by competition for the top spot in U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings.

Although community colleges have long provided an accessible gateway to upward mobility for millions of Americans excluded from "traditional" higher education by high costs and competitive admissions practices, their legitimacy has often been questioned. In 1960 Burton Clark, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, proposed his "cooling out" theory, which essentially argues that community colleges function to dissipate student ambitions and reproduce existing social class divisions. Much of the critical analysis that followed, such as L. Steven Zwerling's in his 1976 book, Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College, and Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel's in their 1989 book, The Diverted Dream: Community College and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America, 1900-1985, asserted that community colleges had moved away from a baccalaureate-oriented liberal arts curricula toward vocational programs that channel students into low-wage, dead-end jobs.

Kevin Dougherty's 1994 analysis in The Contradictory College: The Conflicting Origins, Impacts and Futures of the Community College provides a more nuanced account, suggesting that community colleges struggle to accommodate the multiple demands of their transfer, terminal-degree, and work-force preparedness mission. Finding that students entering two-year colleges with the ambition of completing a baccalaureate degree are far less successful than those who begin a similar quest at four-year institutions, Dougherty suggests that community colleges be part of an existing university system rather than function as stand-alone institutions. The offering of associate degrees at branches of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education exemplifies the approach that Dougherty advocates.

The difficulty in balancing the multiple missions of the community college, especially given burgeoning enrollments and declining state appropriations, is the primary challenge facing these institutions. Within the context of their newly anointed role as saviors of the U.S. economy, community colleges are serving multiple constituents, ranging from an increasing number of recent high school graduates with developmental or remedial needs to the unemployed whose record numbers are overwhelming the capacity of career-oriented programs such as nursing. In addition, accreditation agencies, philanthropic and foundation funders, and politicians are demanding not just access but success. The lack of institutional capacity to generate data demonstrating whether or not institutions are meeting outcomes-based performance metrics poses yet another resource challenge for community colleges. In an era of accountability, the difficulty of community colleges to retain and graduate students has been of paramount concern. Only 18 percent of community college students graduate in three years, and it is estimated that only 40 percent of community college entrants complete a degree or certificate program within six years. The Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are funding initiatives designed to dramatically improve these statistics by doubling the number of college graduates by 2025, from just over 30 percent to 60 percent of the population.

One problem facing community colleges is that nearly 60 percent of new entrants require at least one remedial, pre-college-level course. Another challenge concerns inadequate financial support for instruction. Community colleges expend only one-third of what four-year institutions invest per full-time-equivalent student. While instructional costs are approximately half of those incurred by baccalaureate institutions, community colleges' high attrition rates may be attributed, in part, to their low funding levels.

Exacerbating all of these challenges is huge enrollment growth. From fiscal year 1963 to fiscal year 2006, community college enrollments increased by 741 percent, compared to 197 percent at public four-year institutions and 170 percent at private institutions. At present, over half of all new entrants to higher education enroll in community colleges with minorities disproportionately represented in these institutions. And while many are facing cuts in state appropriations, community college enrollments are reporting as much as a 15 percent enrollment increase this semester in comparison to fall 2008.

An estimated 6.9 million jobs have been lost during the current recession, and worse is forecast. While inequality in wealth and income continues to grow, intergenerational mobility with respect to educational attainment has stalled. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found in their 2008 landmark study, The Race Between Education and Technology, while children born in 1945 on the average attained more than two years more education than did their parents born in 1921, the educational attainment of a child born in 1975 was just half a year more than that of his or her parents born in 1951. Recognizing their role as gateways to higher education and their promise of being able to provide students with a foundation for continuing postsecondary success, community colleges can play an integral role in breaking through this plateau, assuming that there will be a reward at the end of the educational tunnel.

Do newly created jobs pay well and provide pathways for career advancement? Unfortunately, most do not. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs that require short- or moderate-term on-the-job training made up 52.8 percent of the labor market in 2006; this figure will decline slightly to 51.9 percent by 2016. Thus, why should we double the number of college graduates in the United States if they will be over-credentialed for the existing and projected U.S. labor market?

This conundrum resonates with the analysis offered close to 40 years ago by Ivar Berg in his 1970 book, Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, and more recently by D.W. Livingstone in his 1998 The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy. Berg suggests that the discrepancy between laborers having advanced education and jobs that require a low skill level will have a deleterious impact on morale and turnover. Livingstone suggests that employers need to re-engineer the workplace so that they utilize the skills of a highly trained work force, which raises the intriguing question of whether it is possible to raise wages as well as credentials simply basing recovery on existing skill levels. All told, the current policy focus on community colleges constitutes the "perfect storm." The nation is poised to rely on institutions for economic recovery whose historic under-funding has worsened, during an era when many U.S. economic problems appear intractable. When unprecedented job losses and low-wage, unskilled job creation is added to the mix, the challenges seem to be overwhelming.

There are a variety of ways community colleges can rectify this conundrum. One would be to cultivate stronger connections to employers. However, the danger here is that students will receive proprietary, customized job training with limited applicability to other employment opportunities.

Instead, community colleges can create what I term "community capital," which comprises human capital, financial capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Human capital can be viewed as the skills that community colleges cultivate through work-force training programs and through general education and liberal arts programs. Financial capital refers to the public and private resources that are invested in community colleges, ranging from state and local appropriations to private giving and philanthropy. Social capital, as defined by the World Bank, refers to "the norms and networks that enable collective action" and is a metaphor for social cohesion, which, according to the World Bank is "critical for poverty alleviation and sustainable human and economic development." By educating students about the norms for success, community colleges provide much needed cultural capital for an expansive cadre of learners who are often labeled nontraditional.

At the college level, there have been a number of promising initiatives that address some of the internal challenges community colleges face with respect to student retention and degree completion. Given that many community college students are first-generation college students or may have deviated from the mythical pathway of successful education attainment, effective community colleges are devising organizational mechanisms designed to create a sense of institutional "belonging." Learning communities, where cohorts of students enroll in common courses with a team of faculty and participate in collaborative and project-based learning, has been found to promote student retention. Here students bond with peers who provide a source of support both within and outside class. In addition, faculty in disparate disciplines coordinate the curricula so that the normative fragmentation of course work, which often makes it difficult for students to conceptualize coherence, doesn't occur.

Another promising development is Achieving the Dream, a national initiative designed to increase the success rates of low-income, minority students at community colleges. Initiated by the Lumina Foundation for Education, in partnership with regional funders such as the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, this project has spread to over 102 institutions in 21 states. This initiative has brought together an array of funders and practitioners in the pursuit of an equity agenda based upon data-driven strategies designed to retain and graduate low-income, minority students. A novel feature is the engagement of a number of partner organizations that are involved in addressing educational policy at the statewide level, research in the efficacy of how community colleges structure various facets of their operations and the identifications of "best practices" so that all colleges can benefit from participating institutions.

This initiative has resulted in collaboration on the parts of several nonprofits whose work is critical for resurrecting the American dream. For example, Public Agenda facilitates "community conversations" involving local stakeholders on what community colleges can do to reverse the growing achievement gap. Jobs for the Future has been involved in developing state educational policies that incentivize degree completion, such as providing discounted tuition to community college students who complete their associate degree and transfer to public baccalaureate institutions.

With adequate funding, community colleges can provide a range of interventions to facilitate student success. Thanks to generous private and foundation support, my institution -- -Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut -- is piloting programs where cohorts of 15 to 20 students are assigned a full-time adviser who customizes a range of academic and support services. Through our UBS Student Success Center and with funding from MDC, Inc., a community-development non-profit, we are developing an electronic-portfolio, case-management system where advisers can spot students in need of academic assistance in order to complete a course or program of study.

Although there are many challenges, community colleges can carve pathways to upward mobility. They are known for their organizational agility, able to implement new academic programs in expeditious fashion, especially in comparison to other sectors of higher education. Their relatively low tuition and fees are typically covered by Pell grants and provide an entry point into higher education for the poor and disadvantaged. Perhaps the unprecedented national attention that community colleges are receiving will reverse the tide of growing social inequality in the United States. However, this will only occur if inclusion replaces exclusion as higher education's leitmotif.