Cutting-Edge Innovations at Community Colleges
Deserve Attention, Too

Community colleges are suddenly in the spotlight.  Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and the country’s most famous community college instructor, hosted a White House Summit on community colleges today. This follows upon President Obama’s attention-getting proposal—the American Graduation Initiative—to provide additional funding to community colleges.  That initiative never came to fruition, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped up to the plate and announced yesterday a new round of grants to raise completion rates at community colleges.

This sector of American higher education certainly deserves the heightened attention as the nation’s leaders finally start to take seriously the challenge of meeting demands for a more highly educated citizenry and workforce.  Too much of the focus of all this attention, however, is simply on increasing the numbers of students who graduate or successfully transfer from two-year institutions to four-year institutions.  More attention should also be paid to community college efforts to lead the way in advancing more engaged and effective forms of liberal learning.

For too many years, Americans have taken for granted our extensive system of community colleges—a system that is unique in the world.  The system has always been loaded down with too many expectations—specific job training programs, continuing education, “second-chance” programs for less-prepared students, affordable transfer programs—and far too few resources.  Despite these considerable challenges—and the new challenge of meeting unprecedented student demand with even fewer resources—there are hidden treasures within the network of community colleges that also deserve attention.  These community colleges are leading the way not only to increased numbers of graduates, but also to more intentional, engaged, liberal learning for students in both transfer programs and technical degree programs.

The public deserves to know that all students—wherever they start or finish their educational journeys—need to complete degree programs with field-specific skills and the broad outcomes of a liberal education.  AAC&U’s employer survey commissioned as part of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative made this fact abundantly clear.  Americans also should know far more about the innovative high-impact practices being developed at community colleges that are designed to provide students with these outcomes.  I hope the heightened media attention will spill over and shine a brighter spotlight on programs like the cutting-edge electronic portfolio initiative at La Guardia Community College or the Learning Outcomes Covenant at Miami Dade College.  More people deserve to know about undergraduate research programs like the one at Estrela Mountain Community College or the comprehensive strategic planning effort at Lane Community College.

Getting more students to the “college degree” finish line is certainly important, but it is engaged learning programs like these that will ensure that those students actually have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.

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