Where are the community college “sense-makers”?

Community college leaders are under tremendous pressure to improve the rates at which students complete credentials – and to do so in less time, with fewer resources.  The mission of the community college further dictates that they must accomplish this goal without sacrificing quality or access.  Further pressure is applied when viewing the work of the community college through a social justice or economic competitiveness lens, which maintains that the country needs improved completion – in less time, with fewer resources, without sacrificing quality or access – while simultaneously eliminating gaps in outcomes between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

Put differently, the completion agenda makes “access for all” look easy.

Fortunately, community colleges are, by and large, up to the challenge.  For the last three years, my team has been working with completion-focused college leaders across the country who are moving mountains to redesign student pathways focused on improved completion (see for example the Completion by Design project).  Through these conversations, we’ve begun to uncover patterns in the challenges that community colleges are up against.  Among other things, college leaders often reference redesigning developmental education, integrating technology to improve instruction and operations, and providing adequate amounts of effective faculty development as key areas of concern.  While I am sometimes discouraged by the scope of this “list of worry,” I am encouraged to realize that these problems tend to cluster into a manageable group.  And, more importantly, the problems are solvable.

My team is doing what we can to support the colleges that we can, but our resources are limited and the philanthropic sector is (depending on who you ask) designed to provide resources to support upfront innovation — not ongoing operation.  While I believe in the work that we are doing, in back of my mind I can’t help but think that there’s a more fundamental conversation that we need to engage: what is the sustainable model for supporting community colleges improvement efforts over the long haul? 

There are typically two answers to this question: (1) government or (2) the market.

On the government side, I can see few reasons for hope in the near term.  State budgets are declining and belts are tightening around higher education spending in near unprecedented levels (along with healthcare and K12 education).  As a result, state higher education agencies – which represent one potential avenue for the sustainable provision of support to colleges in their state – are facing reductions in force, which greatly limit their ability to help colleges do things like report and analyze data and tap into the national knowledge base of “best practices” around models (in NC, 19 positions were recently cut from the state community college system office).

This leaves the market.  Here we find a wide range of for-profit and nonprofit service providers that offer a range of services to community colleges.  Generally speaking, the relative health of this market is a big unknown to us.  We don’t have, for example, any systematic source of information that can tell us:

  • The specific areas (e.g. data use) in which community colleges are currently seeking support from outside service providers
  • The availability and uptake of services in these areas
  • The relative quality and affordability of services in these areas

Without this knowledge it is hard to know if community colleges will be able to meet the demands of the completion challenge.

So where are the “sense makers” that can help community colleges as they work to address key barriers to improved completion?  Over the last few months, we’ve been partnering with a team from FSG Social Impact Consultants to begin to wrap our heads around the current landscape of service providers in the community college sector.  Their team administered an original survey to all community colleges in the country and spoke one-on-one to over 40 leaders from community colleges and support organizations from across the country.  I’ll share some highlights from their findings here over the next month or so.  You can bet that some of this will surprise you.


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