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2015 December 29 - 10:01 pm

Staying the Course Toward The Transformation of Community Colleges

New Initiatives Extend to Higher Education Community

If, as many believe, community colleges are experiencing a “Camelot moment” in their evolution, what does that mean for the students and communities we serve?

Over the last decade, community colleges have captured the attention of the nation. Arguably, they are best positioned to address a learning continuum that many considered flawed, if not broken, excluding or failing far too many students and leaving the nation at a competitive disadvantage. With their lower cost, broad accessibility and comparative flexibility, community colleges are thought by advocates to be the best hope for rapid and meaningful change.

Responsive by nature and innovative by tradition, community colleges have historically stepped up to such challenges. Now, however, the work is guided by a central and critical difference: It is founded on a culture of evidence — data-based, outcomes driven, and with dramatically increased student completion as the overriding goal.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is privileged — even humbled — to be a catalyst in this ongoing work. Supported by foundations and major business leaders, promoted by federal and state policymakers, and in collaboration with member colleges and national organizations, AACC has pursued nothing less than the reinvention of the community college.

That effort is unified under the aegis of AACC’s 21st Century Initiative, a multi-phased progression that is fervent and ongoing. It began with a six-month national listening tour that helped AACC connect with a broad base of stakeholders. Armed with deeper understanding, association leaders launched Phase 2 of the initiative, appointing a national, blue-ribbon panel to begin a deep dive into issues and challenges with the goal of developing a bold vision to redesign the community college. The 21st Century Commission’s work culminated in Reclaiming the American Dream, Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future, a report that was candid, informed and surprisingly self-critical about how community colleges are performing as a sector.

Futurist Joel Barker observed that, “Vision without action is merely a dream.” Putting theory into action was the third phase of the 21st Century approach. How could we realistically carry out the recommendations of the initial report? Nine implementation teams worked for more than a year to identify strategies and resources to help those on the frontline at community colleges implement commission recommendations. The implementation blueprint, Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future was broadly disseminated and given perpetual vitality by an online virtual center. The center regularly advances a growing body of research, solutions and promising practices, and new initiatives undertaken by AACC and other national organizations.

New initiatives now on the horizon not only build on AACC’s 21st Century approach, but also have critical importance for higher and secondary education writ large:

• The Pathways Project, funded by a $5.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, promises to be a game-changer to increase student completion. Pathways brings together a coalition of AACC and seven national partner organizations to help community colleges build capacity for a pathways approach based on models that are replicable and scalable at the national level. AACC recently announced 30 community colleges in 17 states that will lead in the launch of the project.

• Substantially improving student completion, the primary goal of the 21st Century Commission, continues to be a driving force for AACC, as the association helps colleges bring effective practices to scale. A recent association study presented a candid look at current progress and persistent barriers to increased completion.

• Promoting better alignment between K-12 school standards and first-year, credit-bearing course requirements at community colleges is the goal of a new partnership including AACC, the Association of Community College Trustees, and Higher Ed for Higher Standards. Each year about 50 percent of first-year students at two-year colleges require basic developmental courses before they can begin college-level work.

• Accelerated and redesigned developmental education is critical to getting more students into credit-bearing courses and on to completion. In 2014, AACC convened a National Summit on the Redesign of Developmental Education, challenging 17 colleges to develop action plans informed by current research and proven practices. Publication of the proceedings helped provide a roadmap for other colleges struggling to better student outcomes. AACC has also joined other national organizations and 20 state agencies to endorse six principles aimed at transforming and improving remediation.

• The launch of a national credentialing framework is imminent thanks to a $1.8 million grant to AACC from Lumina Foundation. Within the context of the Beta Credentials Framework, this work will identify methods to better help students understand routes through college training programs, provide greater clarity to employers about what skills and knowledge various credentials represent and better signal within and among colleges the portability, compatibility, and applicability of different credentials.

• Building community college endowments, a crying need for these chronically under-resourced institutions, will be supported by the Goldman Sachs Gives Community College Fund through funding to AACC. The effort will provide grants to help build community college endowments at selected colleges.

• Promoting the College Promise Campaign launched this fall by the Obama administration is an ongoing AACC focus, through its publications, policy advocacy, and outreach. In addition to its efforts to increase awareness for programs and services that support tuition-free community college, AACC serves on the campaign’s National Advisory Board and has developed an online toolkit to encourage member colleges to get involved.

In short, having answered the call to dramatically improve student completion and embraced a national vision for how to get there, AACC and its members are staying a difficult but determined course.

In a recent segment of public radio’s original series about community colleges, the commentator noted that “. . . revolution is stirring” among community colleges. I believe that observation significantly understates what is happening on our campuses.

Unprecedented transformation is alive, well and thriving at community colleges. Our colleges and their leaders have recognized their moment, and they have seized the opportunity.

But as our institutions enjoy this hardwon but unaccustomed spotlight, the real value of “our moment” is in the greater success it means for millions of current and future students.

Walter G. Bumphus is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the leading national organization representing the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the Center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

Also from Walter G. Bumphus, President and CEO, American Association of Community Colleges

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