Can Do For Community Colleges

In the spotlight more than ever before, community colleges are increasingly being asked to do more with less — facing greater pressure to produce more college graduates at the same time that state funding is being reduced.

For example, Arizona's state spending on community colleges in fiscal 2013 dropped 7 percent, from $71 million to about $66 million, in spite of a 7 percent increase in community college enrollment. In Virginia, the average state funding per student at community colleges fell 36 percent, from $4,602 to $2,946, between 2006 and 2011. And, in the last four years, demand for community college education in California has increased while the budgets have been cut by 12 percent. Many institutions nationwide cite such hurdles to justify three-year graduation rates dipping as low as 15 percent, saying it’s impossible to do better. But that’s not true.

Even in the face of all the challenges, there are examples of community colleges doing a superb job achieving student success at scale on campuses across the country. The sector is inventing programs that show promising results, yet community colleges are still being recognized more for their challenges than their successes. What community colleges need is a better sense of where to look for examples of excellence in the sector in order to raise the bar, not only for college completion, but also for student learning outcomes and employment after college.

In July, the Aspen Institute published data that offer some pointers on where to look for solutions. Performance and improvement metrics were released that detail which 120 community colleges are doing best — and improving the most — in terms of graduation rates, retention rates and degrees awarded, for all students and for minority populations that have historically performed at lower levels. The data are used to determine the top U.S. community colleges that are eligible for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

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