A Coming Out Party for Community Colleges

Community colleges, long overlooked in U.S. higher education, have finally found the spotlight.

This was the message I heard in late February when I attended a conference for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program in Washington, D.C. Despite the long name, the program means real money – $2 billion over four years to help community colleges redesign their career pathways and training programs to prepare students for the jobs of the future. $500 million in competitive funds have already been granted, and the $2 billion pot may lead to a larger, $8 billion “Community College to Career Fund” that President Obama announced in his 2012 State of the Union Address.

All of this is part of a larger shift towards recognizing the importance of community colleges in the United States.

Despite educating 44% of U.S. undergraduates, community colleges receive just 27% of public funds. Many community college students come from low-income backgrounds, are the first in their families to attend college, and juggle a range of work and life commitments alongside school. Given that 63% of all new jobs will require a college degree or advanced credential by 2018, preparing these students to succeed isn’t just important for their own life prospects—it’s essential to a thriving workforce and economy.

The TAACCCT program and a growing drumbeat from policymakers, businesses, and national funders are fantastic developments for community colleges. But one central challenge threatens to derail all the positive momentum. Today, only 40% of community college students graduate or transfer to a four-year institution within three years. As a result millions of students lose out on opportunities for better and more fulfilling jobs. And for community colleges themselves, unless they raise completion rates quickly and dramatically the national spotlight will likely fade, funding will fall, and they risk sinking back into relative obscurity.

In short, community colleges face a clear but narrow window to raise completion. Doing so will mean stretching muscles and building capacities that few colleges possess, and most colleges cannot complete this shift on their own. While there are multiple pieces to the college completion puzzle, one aspect we’ve been exploring at FSG is the role played by external service providers. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation we recently published a white paper on the topic—A Market for Success, How a Robust Service Provider Market Can Help Community Colleges Improve Student Completion. Highlights include the most pressing needs of community colleges to improve completion, the areas in which external service providers can best offer support, and recommendations for funders, colleges, service providers, and policymakers for building a more robust service market.

At the TAACCCT conference in D.C., I spoke about these findings with a group of ~20 external service providers convened by several national foundations and organized by VisionLink. While most service providers work in isolation, this group is an innovative attempt to pool capacities and know-how. Although more efforts are needed, I left D.C. inspired by the momentum around community colleges and the organizations that support them.  If this year is to be a coming out party for community colleges, I hope it can also be one for the role that external service providers can play in advancing completion.

If you’re interested, please check out FSG’s report for further ideas on building a robust market of providers. We will also be hosting a free webinar on April 16th with panelists from leading community colleges and nonprofits. We hope you will join us in continuing the conversation about how community colleges can maintain their spotlight and deliver on their missions of student success.

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