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Community Colleges Unite to Improve Completion Rates

It's a lofty goal: to increase student-completion rates in community colleges by 50 percent over the next decade. Six national organizations representing the country's 1,200 community colleges, their governing boards, faculty, and students signed off on this joint vision in April and dubbed it "Democracy's Colleges Call to Action." Since then, the signers have been taking numerous steps to reach that goal.


Their pledge to work together to change the institutional culture to emphasis access and success, as well as eliminate attainment gaps that separate students based on race, ethnicity, and income is needed more than ever. Although the group acted, in part, to support President Obama's American Graduation Initiative, recent news has underscored the importance of their work.

Last week, there was a call to states to improve policies to improve the college-readiness gap and a report that emphasized the need for college-educated workers in the future workforce. Recent research shows the diversity issue is clearly one that community colleges need to address as minorities drive freshman-class enrollment. Also, at community colleges, students are making the most of available finanical aid.

Community colleges are thinking about innovative ways to get more students to finish their degrees. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed described some campuses trying fast-track options to accelerate motivated students through programs more quickly.

The signers have been forming partnerships, seeking funding, looking for political support, and coming up with strategies to make their dream a reality for students.

At the Association of Community College Trustees, the focus has been on training for trustees and presidents. The new Governance Institute for Student Success is designed to empower leaders at community and technical colleges to develop policies and new accountability measures based on student success and completion. Once the benchmarks are set at the top, the hope is that they will translate into effective programs on campus that help more students graduate with a degree, says ACCT President J. Noah Brown. In September, ACCT will be testing the new training model at 23 institutions in Ohio and then roll it out in Washington state.

Brown is also encouraged by recent conversation with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin about his commitment to a political focus on completion and success in higher education. Through the National Governors Association, Manchin would like to get the issue on the agenda in states throughout the country, many of which will have gubernatorial races in the fall. Last week, the NGA released a report about the importance of better training and education for workers, including a call for improved accountability.

While community colleges have emphasized open access, campuses need to do a better job of communicating college-readiness standards to high schools. The concept of "rigor" and developing admissions criteria likely will be part of the discussion to increase student success, says Brown.

At the American Association of Community Colleges, another signer of the Call to Action, the focus on college completion and accountability will be the top agenda item at its board's planning retreat next month, says AACC President George Boggs.

AACC hopes to get some funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help move the agenda forward. (ACCT had a $2 million grant from the Gates Foundation for leadership training.) AACC continues to partner with Achieve the Dream: Community College Count and is working with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to redesign remedial math courses for community colleges.

So how significant is it that these six organizations are working together on this issue? "It's the first time in history, we've ever had major agreement on a common agenda item," says Boggs. In the face of this stubborn economy, when funding is being cut and students are being turned away, colleges are saying they want to be part of the solution, he says. "I'm hopeful and optimistic," says Boggs. "It's going to be a significant challenge. ... There is great enthusiasm among member colleges, and it's important to the future of the country."

Other organizations that signed onto the Call for Action include: the Center for Community College Student Engagement, League for Innovation in the Community College, National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

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