Making Excellence Visible In Community Colleges

We identify excellence in four-year colleges and universities through well-known markers: exclusive and difficult admissions criteria, a lengthy institutional history with famous alumni, at least one venerable building (usually featuring a clock and a bell), a large library, state-of-the-art science facilities, award-winning faculty who write books, appear in the media, and make discoveries, and a stately well-manicured campus. Successful athletic teams often round out this familiar picture. Despite tons of data and all manner of alternative rating systems, these identifiers have proven to be remarkably durable.

But what does excellence at a two-year community college look like? With nearly 45% of all college students in the United States enrolled at a community college, it is a compelling question. Most community colleges are relatively new, so they lack a tradition. And as public institutions with a highly transient population, few have endowments or sources of income apart from tuition and government support.

Four foundations cooperated to create the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence to identify excellence at the two-year level. Awarded every other year, the prize recognizes outstanding community colleges in four key measures: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students. Do students earn associates’ degrees and meaningful credentials? Do colleges work to ensure equitable outcomes for minority and low-income students? Do colleges set expectations for student learning, measure student learning, and use the information to improve? And do graduates get well-paying jobs?

These outcomes-based measure are noticeably different from the ways that we think of excellence in four-year institutions. They also challenge the utility of traditional measures, just as community colleges themselves offer an alternative to a four-year model.

Joshua S. Wyner took the information gleaned from the Aspen Prize process and turned it into an informative book, What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students For Success. Wyner gives examples and histories of institutional accomplishment and success. He spells out how different community colleges have found ways to improve graduation, completion, and transfer, how they have partnered with local labor markets, and have made inroads in building fair low-cost educational programs that work with all students. As executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, Wyner has broad knowledge and understanding of community colleges across the United States.

Like a good business book, What Excellent Community Colleges Do is peppered with anecdotes and examples. Valencia College and Miami Dade College are commended for their efforts at creating structures that increase student success. Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York system, receives high marks for its work on speeding students through remedial/developmental education. West Kentucky Community and Technical College has taken learning outcomes assessment to the next level. Walla Walla Community College anticipated labor market needs and invested wisely in growing its nursing program.

The similarity with business publications extends to Wyner’s analysis of leadership. In a chapter of great interest to this community college president, Wyner highlights the challenges and opportunities facing community college presidents. More than 40% of all community college presidents are slated to retire in the next few years. Wyner’s book argues that the role is of tremendous importance, even more than we realize. The community college presidency also demands greater accountability, the need for strategy and appropriate risk taking, and the ability to marshal resources and energy to focus and prioritize. Successful presidents, Wyner writes, do more than change policies and practices – they change cultures to increase student success. This kind of transformation takes drive, commitment, and time.  The average tenure for presidents whose institutions are identified by the Aspen Prize is ten years, which is twice as long as the average presidential appointment. That kind of long-term impact makes sense, too; change in higher education is no easy undertaking and it takes years.

Informative and well-researched, Wyner’s book still short in a key area: it tends to treat community colleges too much as independent entities. One of the work’s underlying messages is that successful community colleges understand that they are not destinations in themselves, but rather way stations as their students journey to another institution, another degree, or a job. If we hold that premise to be true – and I most certainly do – then we also must appreciate that community colleges cannot build excellence on their own,  even with outstanding leadership. Community colleges are dependent and intertwined with their communities, their states, and their educational ecosystems.

Appreciation of an economic ecosystem is no excuse for poor students performance. Community colleges can and should do more for more students. We have to bear in mind, however, the interconnected nature of community colleges within a larger educational environment. Community colleges are often very much the product of their larger educational systems. Successful presidents realize this and are able to capitalize on their environment’s strengths and minimize their environment’s weaknesses. Successful community college presidents also must appreciate that truly effective long-term leadership is deeply collaborative.

Wyner and the Aspen Prize shine much-needed attention on a vitally important part of our larger educational landscape. For us to promote and advance excellence, we have to identify it and make it visible – within higher education and in the larger community.

David Potash

David Potash

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