Building a Bigger and Better Summit

Sunday, April 18, 2010
It was really hard to watch the American Graduation Initiative get cut from SAFRA. It was one of the most promising initiatives for higher education in decades, representing a real shift from a culture of focus on college access to one focused on student success. I was crushed to see it go unfunded.

Of course, I'm feeling a little better since Jill Biden called for a White House summit on community colleges, to be held this fall. An Obama conference is a decent consolation prize. It's actually a coup, when you think about how seriously community colleges have been taken by policymakers in the past (read: not at all).

Washington needs to make the most of this opportunity. Doing this requires pushing far beyond a pleasant conversation about "best practices and successful models." Because let's be honest-there aren't very many "best practices" we can feel confident in scaling up right now. That's why building the body of research evidence on effective community college practices was a goal of AGI.

Instead Dr. Biden should move the ball forward on a serious conversation about the role of the two-year colleges in American higher education by asking the toughest questions. These should include:

• What constitutes positive, measurable outcomes for students at these schools? What does "making community colleges better" mean?

• Is making community colleges "more accessible" desirable, if it means bringing into college more students with less academic and financial preparation? Under what conditions?

• Are there efficiencies that can be gained without compromising the quality of the academic experience? For example, should state systems of community colleges be encouraged to specialize their in-person academic offerings and expand (and coordinate) their online offerings?

• What role should data play in informing decision-making of community college leaders? Data of what kind, and collected by whom?

• Which additional resources will generate the greatest returns for community college students?

Dr. Biden must emphasize that the entire sector needs to work together, across geographic boundaries (such as urban/rural and state lines), to come up with some common answers. Sure, community colleges grew out of independent communities but they now serve a much larger, national role. Collective thinking about solutions will benefit them, and help them to establish greater visibility and a more powerful voice.

This serious day will be a very important one. We can't be naïve. Even those who think the nation needs more college-educated adults and believe in accessible higher education openly discredit the work of community colleges. Know a kid who wants to earn a bachelor's degree? Some folks will counsel that kid to avoid community colleges. Their advice is based on pretty rock-hard statistical data, but its implications are troubling. Have we basically given up on a two-year route to a four-year degree? Or can we do more to change those numbers in the near future? I hope the answer from the Summit is a convincing "yes." We need the Obama Administration to lead the way.