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Community Colleges Key to our Economy: My Word

March 22, 2014  • Josh Wyner

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in The Orlando Sentinel.


Looking to highlight the promise and challenges of expanding economic opportunity across the nation, President Obama wisely chose to visit Valencia College this week. Valencia represents the incredibly affordable education that community colleges can provide to adults seeking to expand their skills and knowledge.

But in community colleges across our nation, significant student-success gaps remain, and here are a few potential fixes we should pay attention to:

Clearer pathways: Large community colleges nationwide (and Florida’s are no exception) have expanded college access in large part by increasing the numbers of degrees and programs offered. The dizzying array of thousands of courses and hundreds of programs at many colleges — coupled with inadequate guidance — result in students taking courses that don’t help them finish their degrees. Creating clear pathways with limited (or no) course choice, some community colleges have graduation rates above 75 percent, nearly twice the national average.

Affordable bachelor’s degrees: Only 15 percent of community-college students receive a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting community college, even though 80 percent report that as their goal. Partnerships like the one between the University of Central Florida and Valencia College — built on rigorous preparation, guaranteed admission and transfer of all credits — provide an affordable pathway to a bachelor’s degree for thousands of students every year. By creating similar partnerships, two- and four-year colleges can improve student success at scale while holding down rapidly rising college costs.

Connecting colleges and jobs: A recent Gallup-Lumina survey reveals that only 11 percent of business leaders — but nearly 90 percent of academic leaders — believe college graduates are well-prepared for jobs. More community colleges (and four-year institutions) need to connect with employers to understand what’s missing among their graduates, improve their offerings and then regularly check to see if progress is being made.

Employers need to spend more time specifying the skills they see lacking and commit to providing work experiences that develop those skills in students before they graduate.

As President Obama’s visit reminds us, the national work to further expand economic opportunity runs through our nation’s community colleges. Making good on that promise requires that we support community colleges and challenge them to do even more to deliver the education students deserve and the talent our nation needs.

Joshua Wyner is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.