Op-Ed

What we can learn from our community colleges

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On Wednesday, for the second time in the short life of the Aspen Prize for community college excellence, a Florida college was named the best in the nation. Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville won this year, following on Valencia Community College’s first place award in 2011, the inaugural year for the prize.

In addition, three other Florida schools have been top ten finalists over this period — Broward, Indian River, and Miami Dade. In fact, every year the Aspen Prize has been awarded, there have been two Florida colleges in the top 10.

Why do Florida community colleges perform so well? Before getting to the answer, it might be useful to provide a bit of context.

According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly three out of four Americans believe a college degree is critical to landing a good job and improving their futures. Yet a four-year college education is stretching further and further beyond the means of working-class Americans.

In this climate, the expansion of community colleges — which are open to all, with a $3,300 average annual tuition that’s less than half that of four-year colleges — seems inevitable. This worries some people, who point to the fact that only 40 percent of community college students graduate or transfer within three years.

But there’s good news: We know more than ever before about how community colleges can improve — and how many Florida community colleges are leading the way. A group of national college experts who have been investigating community colleges nationwide for over four years as part of the Aspen Institute’s community college prize process have noted that Florida community colleges retain 60 percent of students from their first to second year, a rate 8 points higher than the national average. The three-year graduation and transfer rate for students enrolled in Florida community colleges is 48 percent, also 8 points higher than average.

Part of the reason Florida schools do so well is likely state policy. For 40 years, Florida has sought to increase college access and enable degree completion. While many states allow colleges to devise their own course numbering system, Florida has established a single system so that students at all public colleges can have some assurance that their courses will transfer with them when they leave one school for another.

A statewide articulation agreement encourages local institutions to establish partnerships with four-year colleges, resulting in high levels of transfer and bachelor’s attainment rates for students who start in community college. And strong data systems allow community colleges to monitor student success, not only while at college but after they graduate and look for jobs.

Even within Florida, though, some colleges do better than others.

The most successful schools have worked to help students in ways unrelated to state policy, such as very clearly laying out the courses students must take to reach their degree goals and building a range of supports, academic and otherwise, to help them get there. They have engaged and supported professors to ensure that students receive the rigorous education needed to succeed at the next level, whether that is a job or four-year transfer.

The results? A transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rate at Santa Fe that is twice the national average. An 86 percent increase in associate’s degrees awarded by Valencia over the past six years. These are the kinds of student outcomes the Aspen Prize honors and practices Aspen aims to help more community colleges replicate.

But just as the state has set the stage for excellence to emerge, so too must it support further advancements in student success. Recent events may redound to the detriment of the hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in the state’s community colleges. State budget cuts for higher education, and shrinking funds for students offered through the Bright Futures scholarship program have hit community colleges especially hard. As in other parts of the country, retirements among community college presidents and provosts are accelerating, so the state needs a strategy for attracting and hiring exceptional leaders in an era of changing student demographics and increased accountability for results.

With low costs, open access, strong policies, and sound state investments, Florida’s community colleges have shown the nation how to deliver high-quality credentials to an incredibly diverse population. But still, there is work to do.

Over half of entering students in the Florida system don’t receive their degrees. So as the nation learns how to replicate the success of Florida’s top-ranked institutions, the state and community colleges themselves need to do all they can to ensure that even more students receive a strong return on their higher education investment.

Joshua Wyner is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

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