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US: Falling short on community college completion rates, but aspiring to more

Higher education policymakers and institutional leaders in the US are increasingly concerned about how to move many more students beyond mere access to higher education to the full completion of degree or certificate programmes. Community colleges figure prominently in this discussion (see ACA Newsletter Education Europe, October 2010), with several recently released reports bringing various aspects of this issue into perspective, highlighting progress made in some areas but noting persistent challenges, as well.

The Community College Resource Center and MDRC (a public policy think tank focused on issues affecting low-income families) released in January 2011 Turning the Tide. Five years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges. This report analyses the experiences to-date of the 26 so-called “Round I” community colleges that joined the “Achieving the Dream” initiative launched in 2004 by the Lumina Foundation. This effort was designed to improve success among community college students across the country by helping these institutions develop a “culture of evidence”, defined as “a culture in which colleges routinely use solid evidence to develop institution-wide reform strategies that are aimed at helping their students succeed academically”. Apparently, the results of this effort are so far mixed. For example, four out of five of the Round I colleges adopted practices with a “moderate to strong culture of evidence”. However, most strategies to improve student achievement remained very small in scale (reaching less than 10% of their intended target audience), and student outcome trends were “relatively unchanged”.

What can be done? The US Department of Education has some ideas. In March 2011, it released The College Completion Toolkit, designed to serve as a practical resource for state-level authorities who are responsible for much of the higher education policymaking, implementation and oversight in the US. The toolkit outlines seven strategic areas where relatively “low-cost structural and state policy improvements” can be made to improve college completion rates. It also provides models of actions taken in specific US states. Meanwhile, the Achieving the Dream initiative has itself launched the first in a series of practical guides aimed to arm community colleges with data and suggestions for action. The first number in this series focuses on Engaging Adjunct and Full-Time Faculty in Student Success Innovation.

And when ideas aren’t enough, there’s always the money incentive. The Aspen Institute recently announced a USD 1 million (EUR 686 000) prize for community college excellence. It has deemed 120 high-performing institutions eligible to pursue the winnings, which will recognise the community college with the  most “outstanding academic and workforce outcomes in both absolute performance and improvements over time”. The Aspen award winner will be announced in December 2011.

Department of Education - College Completion Toolkit

MDRC - Turning the Tide

Achieving the Dream - Engaging Adjunct and Full-Time Faculty in Student Success Innovation

Aspen Institute