Honesty is the first step

Reclaiming the American Dream, the new American Association of Community Colleges‘ report, is brutally honest about community colleges’ shortcomings, writes Richard Kahlenberg in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“What we find today are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions.”  The report concedes that “developmental education as traditionally practiced is dysfunctional, that barriers to transfer inhibit student progress, that degree and certificate completion rates are too low, and that attainment gaps across groups of students are unacceptably wide.”  These problems may seem obvious to the casual observer, but for a commission of the AACC, a group which describes itself as “the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges,” to openly admit such failures is remarkable.

Reclaiming the Dream recommends requiring orientation, first-semester counseling to get students into a structured program of study and embedding basic skills instruction into credit-bearing courses. It also calls on four-year institutions to agree on transfer courses, so students won’t lose credits as they move toward a bachelor’s degree.

The AACC report “plants the seed” for The Century Foundation’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, writes Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation. The task force will pose critical questions:

Can we expect to provide equal educational opportunity when higher education is so deeply stratified – with the most selective four-year colleges educating 14 times as many rich kids as poor kids, while community colleges have almost twice as many poor students as wealthy ones?

Why does our system of public funding of higher education provide the fewest resources to the student most in need?

. . . can we call a system where 65 percent of students who start at a community college fail to earn a degree or credential after six years either efficient or equitable?

Community colleges can solve some of their own problems without more dollars, the report said. Funding should be structured to provide “incentives for promoting student success.”

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