Community Colleges’ Unfunded Mandate

President Obama, foundation leaders and the heads of advocacy groups all agree that community colleges need to focus on more than access and drastically improve their generally low completion rates. By and large, these leaders believe that these institutions know, whether by research or common sense, just what to do — such as providing better academic advising, outreach to struggling students, financial aid to encourage full-time enrollment, smaller class sizes and so forth. So what’s the holdup?

Community college presidents across the country argue there is a great disparity between what is being asked of their institutions as far as the "completion agenda" and their ability to actually accomplish its goals — mostly because of dwindling state and local resources.

Last month, at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, six of the sector’s leading education and policy organizations signed what they deemed “a call to action” — a commitment to improve student completion rates by 50 percent over the next decade. The pledge appealed to the sense of responsibility that officials at these open-access institutions often feel toward their community: “With the ‘completion agenda’ as a national imperative, community colleges have an obligation to meet the challenge while holding firmly to traditional values of access, opportunity, and quality.”

Upon hearing of the pledge at the convention, Ron Wright, chancellor of Delgado Community College, in New Orleans, had the same response as many of his colleagues.

“How in the world are we going to be able to do this without any new resources in the system?” said Wright, recollecting his first impression. “How are we going to do this in the face of all the pressure we already have from the legislatures and others to raise our completion rates with the limited resources we have now?”

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