Building a Bigger and Better Summit

April 19, 2010 | Blog

It was really hard to watch the American Graduation Initiative get cut from SAFRA. It was one of the most promising initiatives for higher education in decades, representing a real shift from a culture of focus on college access to one focused on student success. I was crushed to see it go unfunded.

Of course, I’m feeling a little better since Jill Biden called for a White House summit on community colleges, to be held this fall. An Obama conference is a decent consolation prize. It’s actually a coup, when you think about how seriously community colleges have been taken by policymakers in the past (read: not at all).

Washington needs to make the most of this opportunity. Doing this requires pushing far beyond a pleasant conversation about “best practices and successful models.” Because let’s be honest-there aren’t very many “best practices” we can feel confident in scaling up right now. That’s why building the body of research evidence on effective community college practices was a goal of AGI.

Instead Dr. Biden should move the ball forward on a serious conversation about the role of the two-year colleges in American higher education by asking the toughest questions. These should include:

• What constitutes positive, measurable outcomes for students at these schools? What does “making community colleges better” mean?

• Is making community colleges “more accessible” desirable, if it means bringing into college more students with less academic and financial preparation? Under what conditions?

• Are there efficiencies that can be gained without compromising the quality of the academic experience? For example, should state systems of community colleges be encouraged to specialize their in-person academic offerings and expand (and coordinate) their online offerings?

• What role should data play in informing decision-making of community college leaders? Data of what kind, and collected by whom?

• Which additional resources will generate the greatest returns for community college students?

Dr. Biden must emphasize that the entire sector needs to work together, across geographic boundaries (such as urban/rural and state lines), to come up with some common answers. Sure, community colleges grew out of independent communities but they now serve a much larger, national role. Collective thinking about solutions will benefit them, and help them to establish greater visibility and a more powerful voice.

This serious day will be a very important one. We can’t be naïve. Even those who think the nation needs more college-educated adults and believe in accessible higher education openly discredit the work of community colleges. Know a kid who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree? Some folks will counsel that kid to avoid community colleges. Their advice is based on pretty rock-hard statistical data, but its implications are troubling. Have we basically given up on a two-year route to a four-year degree? Or can we do more to change those numbers in the near future? I hope the answer from the Summit is a convincing “yes.” We need the Obama Administration to lead the way.

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