Transforming America’s Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal To Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity

Sara Goldrick-Rab,
Sara Goldrick-Rab Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology - University of Wisconsin-Madison
Douglas N. Harris,
Douglas Harris, Nonresident Senior Fellow
Douglas N. Harris Nonresident Senior Fellow - Governance Studies, Brown Center on Education Policy, Professor and Chair, Department of Economics - Tulane University

Gregory Kienzl, and Christopher Mazzeo

May 7, 2009

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To renew America’s status as the world’s leader in college attainment, the federal government needs to transform America’s community colleges and equip them for the 21st century. This long-overdue investment should establish national goals and a related performance measurement system; provide resources to drive college performance toward those goals; stimulate greater innovation in community college policies and practices to enhance the quality of subbaccalaureate education; and support data systems to track student and institutional progress and performance.

America’s Challenge
Over the last two centuries, the United States created an advantage over other countries by helping our citizens attain formal education, generating an able workforce and technological advancement. Yet U.S. higher educational attainment, long considered a ladder to economic and social success, has stalled, and now reinforces inequalities between rich and poor America. Community colleges represent an affordable, accessible route for a wide income spectrum of students to access well-paying, high-demand jobs, as well as further education. But low degree completion rates at these institutions raise serious challenges for public policy efforts to achieve robust, broad-based economic growth.

Limitations of Existing Federal Policy
Between 2000-2001 and 2005-2006 total enrollment in community colleges grew by 2.3 million students, more than in any other higher educational sector. The current economic downturn is spurring further increases. Yet community colleges receive less than one-third the level of direct federal government support as do public four-year colleges. This matters as economic research indicates that a relative decline in post-secondary funding diminishes degree completion. While all public colleges and universities rely on non-tuition revenue, community colleges depend disproportionately upon state and local governments, currently under severe budget pressure. Only the federal government has the capacity to raise expectations for community college performance and support the necessary investments to achieve those goals at a scale commensurate with the growing demands facing over 1,000 community colleges nationwide.

A New Federal Approach
The new administration and Congress should transform our community colleges into engines of opportunity and prosperity by targeting new investments to those colleges that succeed in helping their students succeed. To that end, the federal government should:

  • Establish national postsecondary goals and create a performance measurement system to support the effective use of federal resources
  • Double its current level of support in order to account for more than 10 percent of community colleges’ budgets, ultimately awarding threequarters of these funds based on colleges’ performance in meeting key goals around student credit, credential, and degree completion
  • Stimulate instructional innovations and practices to increase the quality of community college education, by devoting half of the administration’s proposed $2.5 billion state-federal partnership fund to improve and evaluate practices enhancing sub-baccalaureate education
  • Support the improvement of student data systems necessary to measure and track college student outcomes, guide funding, improve accountability, and promote continuous improvement in educational quality

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