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An "A" for Access, a "C" for Success

Community colleges were created in 1947 by the President's Commission on Higher Education to give all Americans low-cost access to public higher education. Some 60 years later, they've delivered on that promise - but not, for the most part, on the successful lives that were meant to follow.

That was the take-home message of the TC Community College Research Center's 2006 Spring Seminar, "Community Colleges and Educational Equity," held in early April.

"Access without success is a hollow promise," said Nan Poppe, President of Portland Community College's Extended Learning Campus. "Those of us who work at community colleges see educational equity as core to our mission - but while community colleges have done a great job on the access part of equity, we are losing far too many students."

With community colleges enrolling nearly one-half of all U.S. college students, all of the seminar's panelists acknowledged the critical role these institutions play as a gateway to opportunity.

But the consensus was that far too many students arrive at community colleges with weak skills, unable to do post-secondary school work - in short, at high risk of never completing their degrees. In fact, Poppe estimated that at some community colleges up to 75 percent of the students who enter under open access are unable to do college-level work - either because of academic under-preparedness or because of a language issue. The result: eight years after entering these so-called two-year institutions, only six percent of students have received a certificate, 16 percent an associate's degree and 18 percent a bachelor's degree. Half of all entering students do not complete their first year. Most of those who don't make it are the low-income, immigrant, of color, or first-generation college students - or any combination thereo- that make up the overwhelming majority of the community college population.

"If you are interested in educational equity, community colleges should be central to your agenda," said Thomas Bailey, Director of the Community College Research Center and the George and Abby O'Neil Professor of Economic and Education at Teachers College. "Without a high school degree, one has little chance of getting a decent job, but that societal minimum is rising - getting through some college will soon be the baseline."

Yet the failure of community colleges affects not only the students who attend them, but society as a whole.

"The more we focus on the question of global competitiveness, the more we realize that stopping at the high school diploma level is not enough," said Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of TC's Campaign for Educational Equity, which co-sponsored the event. "It is in America's national interest to have an educated workforce that can compete in today's global economy. Yet by 2012 - just six short years from now - it is estimated that there will be a shortfall of 7 million college-educated workers in the United States."

Rebell traced some of the problems faced by community colleges back to the failure of K-12 education. "If the states were meeting their obligation to ensure that students in K-12 were meeting the challenging standards set during the past decade, most of the problems that the community colleges are facing in terms remediation and poor retention would not exist," he said.

Compounding the problem is that community colleges receive the least money to deal with the students who have the greatest needs.

"Despite the fact that community colleges face greater economic challenges in regard to the students they serve, their students get less than half the funding provided to students in public four-year institutions," said Bailey.

"Community colleges operate under an open admissions policy, and an open admissions policy can succeed if students are provided with different types of support services than those found at colleges and universities that operate under a selective admissions policy," added Eduardo Marti, President of Queensborough Community College and Teachers College Trustee.

Poppe illustrated that point by describing a program at her institution called Gateway to College, which helps high school dropouts complete their diploma requirements while simultaneously earning college credits toward an associate's degree. With more funding than most community colleges can count on - mostly from local K-12 school district dollars-'"Gateway is able to maintain rigorous academic standards while conducting intensive literacy development and offering individualized support. The program is now being replicated on other campuses around the country.

"We are helping students strengthen academic skills by teaching and reinforcing positive learning behaviors and preparing students for success in adult learning environments," said Poppe.

The pay off: of Gateway's 35 June 2003 graduates, half graduated with honors and 80 percent are continuing their college education.


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