NEW ORLEANS — From its opening moments, when students via a video link pledged in unison to join the completion agenda, to the closing party, which featured a joyous version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, the 91st convention of the American Association of Community Colleges took on an unmistakable populist feel and fervor.
In speeches inside the cavernous convention hall, in intense discussions unfolding in nondescript meeting rooms, 1,200 community college leaders were implored time and again to hold fast to the we-the-people roots of community colleges, even as the unrelenting pressures of dwindling financial support and greater accountability continue to grow.
“We are egalitarian,” said AACC President and CEO Walter G. Bumphus as he kicked off his first convention as leader of one of the nation’s largest and most influential community college groups. “We are democracy’s colleges. For more than 100 years, we have countered elitism, broadened citizen participation, offered a pathway — or better still, an on-ramp — to the middle class, and helped bridge the chasm between the haves and have-nots.
“The current erosion of financial support for us at all levels of government is willfully forgetful of the connection between a college education and a healthy democracy. We need to remind policymakers, even as we remind ourselves, of our force as an equalizer.”
Community colleges, Bumphus said, must become more vocal proponents of their own mission in opening the educational and economic doors to populations that sometime seem an afterthought in the today’s national political debate. Part teacher, part preacher, Bumphus called upon two-year schools to shed the inferiority complex that too often characterizes them.
“Our advocacy must better influence the decisions that affect us,” Bumphus said. “The AACC, the Association of Community College Trustees, and most of your state organizations are now at the policy table. But sometimes our voices are timid.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘If you think small, you will be.’ As public institutions we want to be trustworthy collaborators, but never pawns.”
For Bumphus, the convention was a coronation of sorts, a capstone to a compelling personal narrative that has seen education propel him from an impoverished childhood in rural Kentucky to the halls of power and influence in Washington, D.C.
That the convention took place in New Orleans, a city still struggling for a new day after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was rich with symbolism. Louisiana is the state where Bumphus, as president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, passed through a professional and personal crucible marked by the complete destruction of major college campuses, enrollment that dropped by 60 percent and nearly 1,500 deaths in the city of New Orleans.
“That experience was, thankfully, rare, but in some ways I think all of you can relate to what we went through,” Bumphus said. “Like my team then, each day you see yourselves battling forces beyond your control that are almost overwhelming. You face a rising tide of demand against a storm of economic devastation.”
Indeed, for community colleges, the event came at a perilous time. The institutions never have enjoyed a more prominent position in the national debate. Policy leaders of every stripe have called upon the institutions to help lift the economy from its historic downturn.
But never have the colleges been under more scrutiny for their poor graduation rates and frustrating inability to move large percentages of students to a degree or certificate. The colleges’ newfound celebrity, as Bumphus said, is a “two-edged sword.” Access is no longer enough. Retention and completion are the new watchwords.
So it was scant surprise that one of the themes threading through the convention was the completion agenda that took root in President Obama’s call to exponentially increase the number of college graduates between now and the year 2020. The agenda has only grown in urgency since then, as colleges devise and implement strategies to better serve their students and communities, and struggle to build them to scale.
A Pervasive Fear
Yet underlying the devotion to the completion agenda was a pervasive fear that it could unravel community colleges’ historic open access mission. After all, the easiest and quickest path to boosting completion rates is to restrict admissions. Colleges are confronted with a difficult balancing act between the competing agendas of open admissions and completion.
“The access door will not automatically stay open,” Bumphus said. “We cannot afford to take our historic access gains for granted — not when tuition is growing faster than inflation, our students continue to bring multiple risk factors, college success for minorities is fragile, and a fair number of our colleges are closing or limiting enrollments — hopefully only temporarily.”
The movement to restrict access is being fueled, in part, by efforts to reduce the burdensome costs of remedial education. Starting next year, high school graduates in Georgia, for example, will need to successfully pass three entrance examinations to gain entry to a community college, said Carl B. McDonald, vice-president for academic affairs at South Georgia College. In the fall, Pima Community College in Arizona will no longer admit students who don’t have a high school diploma or a GED, unless they successfully pass an entrance exam.
“I believe (open) access is going away,” said Jana B. Kooi, president of Pima’s Northwest Campus, during one session. “I believe the economy, and the way policy is moving, we are moving that way.”
Congressional budget-cutters are sharpening their knives and planning to cut $9 billion and three million students from the critical Pell Grant program in next year’s federal budget. Beginning this fall, the maximum Pell Grant could drop from $5,500 to as low as $2,100. State scholarships are drying up and likely will continue to do so. Next year, at least 44 states are projecting additional budget cuts totaling $125 billion. Higher education remains a favorite target for budget-cutters.
Such trends are troubling, community college leaders said, and pose a direct threat to the open access mission. Somehow, the open access mission and the completion agenda must be balanced.
“We can’t allow completion to subsume the good work we’ve done for the past 100 years,” said Gerardo de los Santos, president of the League for Innovation in the community college.
The League was among five leading community college groups that last year signed an agreement committing themselves to Obama’s ambitious college completion goals. Since then, much work has been done. Students have been told of the benefits of college completion. Tool kits have been developed for administrators. Regional community college summits have been convened. Systems have been developed to collect and analyze reams to data and act upon it.
But perhaps most importantly, a dialogue has commenced on college campuses about the importance of college completion, a conversation that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The conversation is not always easy, for it embodies a stark departure from what colleges have been doing for years. While most colleges can readily cite percentages on how much enrollment has increased from year-to-year, very few can calculate a comparable number for graduation Colleges simply have never before been asked to improve graduation rates.
“Our whole psychology is built around access,” said Ronald A. Williams, vice president of the College Board, which is taking an increasingly active role in working with community colleges. “You need a complete shift. We don’t interpret completion as a value. The completion agenda forces a complete rethinking of what we do. That, to me, is the biggest hurdle that we face.”
“We need to give equal pride to the end number.”
Some colleges are trying to change that. At Harper College, in Illinois, administrators have calculated how many more students it must graduate to fulfill its portion of Obama’s graduation 2020 goals. That number — 10,604 — is a figure that drives everything the college does, said college President Kenneth L. Ender.
“The number gives us a metric, a goal,” he said. Even if the goal is never fully realized, Ender said, it provides a clear context for the work that lies ahead for the college.
But leaders like Ender also insist that community colleges can’t solve the completion riddle by themselves. Other segments of public education, and the broader community, must be drawn into the debate and become part of the solution. The students who will be going to college in the year 2020 are today in grade school.
“We need to build real urgency in our community colleges and in our community,” he said. “If we are to be successful, we can’t do it on our own. If we’re not ready to work with K-12 at the fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade levels, we won’t solve this problem. “
“It’s too late in your freshman year of college to find out you’re not college- ready.”
Harper College has also taken pains to involve faculty in the completion agenda discussion. They populate various college committees working through various challenges and solutions.
But while engaging faculty members is considered critical to the completion agenda, they remain an untapped resource at many colleges. Very few faculty members attended the AACC convention.
Moreover, few professional development opportunities are available to the adjunct professors who teach the bulk of community college courses. All the data being collected on completion and retention is of little value unless it makes it way into classrooms, college leaders were told.
“Faculty need to be brought into the completion conversation early and often,” said the League’s de los Santos.
College leaders are also mindful that realizing the completion agenda will be done amid shrinking resources and rising enrollments. But they were told that doing so is not only an imperative for economic development, but also to create a fully functioning democracy.
“Completion is not optional,” said J. Noah Brown, chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees. “It’s been embedded in higher education for years. We need to go back to the future. Do we need more money? Yes. But failure is more costly.”
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Q: Is the open-access mission of community colleges under threat?