America is losing its lead in higher education. While other countries are turning out ever-increasing numbers of college graduates, the U.S. has stalled, leaving it behind at least 10 other developed nations in educational attainment. Not everyone needs a college degree, but it's becoming increasingly clear that as a nation we need to produce more college graduates to meet the changing demands of our economy and remain globally competitive.
For low-income students and first-generation college goers, the local community college is often the most practical point of entry into higher education. Community colleges are by far the fastest growing sector in American public education — from the early 1960s to the mid-2000s, community college enrollment grew by more than 700 percent (enrollment in public four-year colleges increased by about 200 percent during the same time frame). Community colleges enrolled 6.2 million students in 2006, or about 35 percent of all postsecondary students.
Many of these new community college students arrive with the kind of life circumstances that make it hard to succeed in school, like limited financial resources, demanding family obligations, or difficulty finding transportation or child care. Many students come to community college from crowded or dysfunctional K-12 systems that haven't adequately prepared them for the demands of college. As a result, an estimated 60 percent of entering community college students need some kind of remedial coursework before they can qualify for regular college classes that count toward a degree.
Making matters worse, virtually all community colleges operate in state policy environments that do little to encourage or reward success. On average, per student funding at community colleges is less than half of that at four-year research universities. There are limited quality controls: community colleges are neither rewarded for success nor penalized for failure. Few studies exist about community colleges and their effectiveness. Even basic information on student outcomes and "what works" is hard to come by. Given the layers of policy and funding problems and the enormity of students' educational challenges, the community college's task can appear impossible.
Now, after years of neglect, community colleges suddenly have the nation's attention. Recession-impacted students are flooding admissions offices, while policymakers and business leaders are looking to community colleges to help America's workers gain new skills and get back to work.
President Obama has called for community colleges to graduate an additional five million students by 2020. The focus on community colleges makes good sense: without significant attention to these institutions, the president's national college graduation goals will amount to little. But given current success rates at community colleges, particularly for remedial students, it's certain to be an uphill battle.
See the attached PDF for the full text of this policy paper.