As elite universities debate Congress over how much of their multi-billion-dollar endowments to spend, a new report argues that higher education's heavy-lifters - community colleges - need both more money and better results.
The report, commissioned by the nonprofit College Board, aims to bring some of the spotlight back to the nation's 1,200 community colleges and their 11.6 million students. Former Kansas University Chancellor Gene Budig is a senior presidential adviser to the College Board and chairman of its advisory board.
While the document predictably calls for more public funds, it also reflects a changing outlook among community college leaders: It's no longer enough just to let students in the door. Community colleges must do more to measure students' progress and make sure they earn the credits they need to transfer or complete a degree.
The report is from a group created by the College Board called The National Commission on Community Colleges and was written largely by community college leaders. It's being distributed at College Board meetings starting this week and highlights the important role community colleges play in expanding access to higher education and driving economic growth.
But it also acknowledges that the schools' traditional emphasis on enrolling as many students as possible won't cut it any more.
"The focus has been access," said Augustine Gallego, chancellor emeritus of the San Diego Community College District and chair of the commission. "Now, we need to commit a lot of time and resources to how do we make sure students succeed and how do we measure that success."
Community colleges enroll 6.6 million for-credit students and another 5 million who aren't seeking credit. The institutions certify 80 percent of first-responders (such as firefighters and EMTs) and account for half of new nurses.
With costs that have gone up more slowly than at four-year institutions, community colleges are an increasingly popular starting point for a bachelor's degree. The College Board's latest survey on college prices found the average net cost - accounting for financial aid - for community college students is a mere $320 per year.
In Kansas, Johnson County Community College charges $63 per credit hour. A full-time student pays an average of $756 per year before figuring in financial aid. At Kansas City Kansas Community College, the number is $708 per year. While neither number accounts for room and board all students pay, it also doesn't account for the nearly $5,000 in financial aid students there receive.
'Gatekeeper of opportunity'
But community colleges haven't done as well moving students toward their goals. It's true many of their students aren't there to earn a degree or certificate, so a "graduation rate" isn't a fair measurement. But several recent studies have focused on those who do want to earn a credential, and found disturbing numbers never make it. One study of California's giant community college system estimated only about a quarter of students seeking a degree or to transfer to a four-year school succeed within six years.
James Jacobs, of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, says better student outcomes have risen to the top of the agenda for a broad range of community colleges. A major philanthropic project called "Achieving the Dream" is helping community colleges study their students' performance and develop ways to improve it. At least one state, Washington, is changing how it funds community colleges to reward student progress instead of just enrollment, Jacobs said.
"The days when community colleges sold themselves as low-cost community institutions, that model and that branding are almost over," said Jacobs, who was not involved with the College Board report. "Increasingly, you have to be a gatekeeper of opportunity and you have to be able to move people to that opportunity."
But that will mean more measurement - a touchy subject for colleges, which are eager to avoid anything in higher education resembling the federal "No Child Left Behind" law for K-12 schools. Community colleges are particularly concerned, arguing they serve students with a wide range of abilities and goals that test results can't capture.
Not to be overlooked
While acknowledging that point, the report urges community colleges to develop new measurements and embrace a "culture of evidence" on how students fare - ideas that don't sound much different from those advocated by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the 2006 report she commissioned on the future of higher education.
The College Board is best known for its oversight of the SAT college entrance exam and the Advance Placement testing program. But it also oversees a range of programs that support its mission of boosting college access.
"I think this report powerfully says to people, 'Don't overlook the community college program,'" said College Board President Gaston Caperton, who said he came to appreciate the value and mission of community colleges when he served as governor of West Virginia. "It is an important part of education and an increasingly important part."