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Addressing the community college problem

For the past few days, I’ve written about different ways in which state legislatures around the country have approached an emerging elephant in Higher Education’s living room: what to do about the community college problem.

For decades, states have thrown billions of dollars at their community colleges. Whether these institutions rely primarily on state and tuition dollars or a mixture of state, local and tuition dollars, community colleges have consumed an enormous amount of resources and have returned comparatively little when you look at “success” measures like the two-, four-, and six-year graduation rates, the transfer rate, the drop-out rate, the likelihood that transfer students will graduate from a four-year university, and the average annual earnings of community college graduates when compared to high school graduates and bachelor’s degree recipients. I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone, but they’re all pretty dismal.

There are numerous reasons that community colleges don’t meet these measures of academic success. That’s a different subject altogether. My observation here is that state legislatures are growing increasingly impatient with the objective performance of community colleges. At a time when money is tight and legislatures must fund a wide range of competing priorities, they seem to be exploring options for limiting their losses. North Carolina wants to tighten its control over the administration of its community colleges. Texas wants to “reward” performance – which is another way of saying they want to punish failure. (And failure abounds at community colleges.) Oregon is going for the traditional budget cut.

The counterplay to these moves is simply to succeed. Of course, that’s the one thing community colleges haven’t managed to do. In a nutshell, that is the community college problem.

Community college problem isn’t going away

I wrote about this more than a year ago. Competition is essential to survival, yet community college administrators do not know how to compete. Until now, the never-ending stream of public funding meant that they and their institutions could survive indefinitely without having to compete.

Except that state legislatures are now beginning to demand performance from community colleges. Those demands will not go away, but institutions whose administrators can’t figure out how to compete just might. Private, for-profit schools are increasingly occupying the vocational and occupational education spaces. Non-accredited providers are promoting skill-based micro-credentials. Universities are eliminating standardized testing requirements for applicants – and with great success. They’re also underwriting “guarantee” programs for students from low-income households and poaching community college instructors. Employers are reviewing (and eliminating) arbitrary degree requirements for open positions. Trade unions are aggressively recruiting new members. And employment opportunities for individuals with only a high school education have never been more lucrative.

And often, the best response community college administrators can draft is to close campuses and programs and lay off members of their full-time teaching staff. Or latch on to “unrelated business income” opportunities to generate cash when what they really need to generate is new programs.

Until community college administrators learn to compete effectively, their institutions will always be easy targets for other competitors, local employers, and even politicians who look for reasons to divert funding from higher education to address the community college problem.

Photo Credit:, via Flickr