New America Weekly

Getting from Lucky to Good

Weekly Article
Jennifer G. Lang / Shutterstock.com
Oct. 24, 2019

At 45, Jan Pomeroy decided to give college another shot. She’d dropped out of college 25 years earlier, feeling lost and disoriented; the college environment was confusing, and she didn’t know where to go with questions or where to look for support. But Anoka-Ramsey Community College was different—Jan credits her success at the college to warm and unwavering support from her advisor, who provided the astute advice and encouragement she needed to achieve her goals.

Unfortunately, the type of support that helped buoy Jan’s success is all too rare in community colleges, which are often hobbled by lack of funding.

But that might be about to change. On October 15th, the House released their long awaited bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Included in the bill is a new grant program—the Community College Student Success Program—meant to build the capacity of community colleges to support student success. This type of investment could have a significant positive impact: In a systematic review of the 36 most rigorous evaluations, my colleagues and I found that the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program—the last major direct federal investment in community colleges—led to improved education and labor market outcomes for participants. Students, community colleges, and our economy will benefit from smart federal investment in community college capacity—but, as we learned in the course of our research, the investment needs to be designed well.

Established at the height of the last recession, the TAACCCT program aimed to inject needed resources into community colleges as waves of adult students came back to college seeking to upskill or reskill. Supporting student success was also a key focus of the TAACCCT grants—and our meta-analysis of 216 final, independent evaluations of the grants yielded some essential lessons for creating federal investment that successfully supports community college capacity.

First, here’s what the proposed Community College Student Success Program gets right:

  • Purpose. Evidence shows that students and the economy can greatly benefit from increased federal support of community college capacity.
  • Size. The program would be large, authorizing a billion dollars each year for five years (the TAACCCT grants, by comparison, were only $2 billion over four rounds). This type of investment, if well designed, has the opportunity to be transformative.
  • Length. It takes a long time to start programs in higher education and even longer for students to matriculate through them. The proposed five-year length of the grants in the Community College Student Success Program recognizes this reality.

Then there are some lessons learned from TAACCCT that could help make this program better:

  • Program structure. The proposed legislation is too prescriptive in its definition of a Student Success Program—it lays out, for instance, how many times a week a student must meet with their adviser. Instead, we recommend supporting any program that has strong evidence of improving student success—TAACCCT has shown us that there are many locally grown, innovative practices at community colleges.
  • Sustainability. Under the bill, colleges’ share of program costs would increase each year until it reaches 50 percent in the last year of the grant. While this type of cost sharing is understandable in the quest to ensure that grants can lead to lasting change, making colleges take on the burden of paying for half of the program before the end of the grant may blunt the benefit of a five-year grant. Another idea would be creating a state role in these grants to help support scale and sustainability.
  • Evaluation. The bill currently calls for a central evaluation of the grant programs’ impact. This would be extremely hard to do well and would also forgo a powerful opportunity to build the evidence base of the field. Instead, we recommend keeping grant evaluation local.

It’s exciting to see federal policymakers discuss increased investment in community colleges —but in considering new paths forward, we must refer to past lessons. The TAACCCT grants provide crucial insight into what works—and what still needs tweaking.

Jan Pomeroy was fortunate enough to find the support she needed. But with smart, sustainable federal investment, stories like hers won’t rely on good luck. Instead, they’ll just be good—for students, and for the communities they live in.