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Community Colleges Work to Improve Image

Despite record enrollments, community colleges don't get the respect many feel they deserve.

Just one in five Americans in a Gallup poll released Feb. 5 on higher education design "strongly agree" that community colleges offer high-quality education.

And remember when The Wall Street Journal once referred to them as the "Rodney Dangerfields of higher education?"

Community college leaders are reflecting on what can two-year, public institutions do to improve their image and better serve students.

In his new book, First in the World: Community Colleges and America's Future, J. Noah Brown suggests college leaders need to assume greater responsibility for the outcomes—positive and negative—generated by their institutions. As president of the American Association of Community College Trustees, Brown is enthusiastic about the work being done on campuses across the country, but he sees a need to embrace a culture of evidence and improve students' success.

That can be accomplished by adopting new measures that show the work being done on campuses to serve a variety of students, he suggests. Some of that will be achieved with new policies to track graduation rates of part-time students.

Brown also encourages community colleges to communicate their results and better orient new students. If schools are indeed good stewards of the public dollar, he writes, their success should be rewarded by the government. The new Voluntary Framework for Accountability is part of that effort.

Government funding for community colleges is at the lowest point in 20 years, and supporters are trying to make the case for increased public investment to keep up with student demand.

The 2010 White House Summit on Community College brought welcome attention to this often-overlooked sector. "But the praise ultimately rings hollow without the investment of real resources and a sustained strategy for freeing the immense potential of community colleges," Brown writes.

Brown said he was disappointed by the recent Gallup results about community college perceptions. "It's my sense that there is a growing recognition and appreciation for community colleges," he said. "We need to redouble our efforts to educate the country about our work. ... We have not been aggressive in educating the broader population about the things we do."

A commentary piece by Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia College in Florida, published in Inside Higher Ed last Thursday calls for community colleges to confront the long-term funding challenges with some innovation.

"We are being asked to achieve much better results with fewer resources to engage a needier student population in an atmosphere of serious skepticism," he writes.

Like Brown, Shugart applauds efforts to improve measurements and accountability. He would also encourage students to make earlier, more grounded choices of major and require completion of an associate degree prior to transfer. Shugart advocates better student supports, a ramped-up focus on instruction, and clear pathways.

"The degree is a means to an end. Relevant, deep learning is the end. This requires curriculum that is a coherent program of learning, not just a collection of articulated credits," Shugart writes. "It requires well-structured, easily communicated pathways that students can follow to the ultimate end. And it requires genuine collaboration across institutional boundaries that will change the focus from institutional self‐absorption to a learner-centered strategy."


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