Community Colleges

For community colleges, a lack of trust contributes to a lack of students

March 22, 2023  • Pascale Charlot

There’s a crisis in higher education.

Community colleges, which educate nearly half of all American undergraduates, are experiencing a decade-long drop in enrollment. Since 2011, student numbers have dropped from 7 million to 5.5 million. This drop has many complex causes outside of colleges’ control, but there is one important thing colleges can do to bring back enrollment: rebuild trust. And the key to that trust? Delivering greater value to more students.

Community colleges were created to broaden access to higher education in this country, and they’ve largely succeeded in that goal—including for students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. On the foundation of open access, community colleges have worked to understand and mitigate the challenges their students face as they complete their degrees. Colleges nationwide have been helping students stay enrolled and move towards graduation, including by adding more advisors, developing clearer course sequences, offering faster ways for students to catch up, and providing much needed additional support such as food assistance. The results have been positive, and graduation rates have improved substantially over the past decade.

While these gains are important, they are not enough. Many colleges still miss something important—the fact that students don’t come to college to graduate, but to improve their lives. For community college students, success means starting on the path to a bachelor’s degree or attaining the skills needed to land a good job right after graduating. Unfortunately, too many students—more than half—don’t graduate. Of those that do, too many don’t earn degrees that offer strong labor market value. Only about a quarter (23%) of associate degree graduates and a little more than a third (37%) of occupational certificate completers earn at least $35,000 two years after completion, according to CCRC. To rebuild trust, colleges must make sure more of their degrees are pathways to social mobility while also developing talent to meet the needs of employers in their communities.

At the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, we are helping community colleges fulfill their mission by starting with the end in mind. We identify institutions that have real data showing that they are delivering life-changing value to students. We study them and make their ideas available to other institutions through reports and assessment tools. We also offer professional development programs to presidents, their leadership teams, and their boards about how to replicate this success. Aspen is helping the community college sector see what is possible so that more colleges can deliver value to their students and their communities.

Creating a path to a bachelor’s degree: The Alamo Colleges

Between 2017 and 2027, the value of a college degree has and will continue to increase, with a nearly 10% growth in good jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree—but only a 1% increase in those requiring an associate degree or certificate. One challenge in getting community college students to good jobs is the attainment of bachelor’s degrees. Of the 80% of community college students who want to get a bachelor’s degree, only 14% do. There is a clear need to improve pathways from community college to bachelor’s degrees.

The Alamo Colleges District is a transfer-focused system of five colleges in an urban community with low bachelor’s attainment rates (and the system that holds 2021’s Aspen Prize winner, San Antonio College). When Alamo leaders looked at where their students wound up, they saw that students mostly transferred to one of seven universities, but there were no common pathways between Alamo and those universities. No pathways means far too many course credits were lost when students transferred. Students were spending more time (and more money) at the transfer university to earn needed additional credits. As a result, far too many students didn’t complete their bachelor’s degrees—and as a result saw no reason to complete an associate degree as the first step. In fact, Alamo was looking at single digit graduation rates.

To improve those numbers, Alamo built pathways with four-year institutions that map their courses to bachelor’s degrees. Alamo also reduced the student-advisor ratio from 900:1 to 350:1, required that every student see an advisor to get and stay on a program map, and initiated that advising sooner. Though it sounds like a simple solution, internal infrastructure had to be reimagined, data and other capacities had to be developed, and multiple transfer partnerships renegotiated. Alamo also strengthened the pipeline and built strong dual enrollment and early college partnerships that got thousands more local students connected to college.

As a result of this systemic reform approach, Alamo experienced a rapid increase in graduation and transfer outcomes both overall (+19%) and for students of color (+20%).  This was accompanied by a 24% enrollment increase over the last decade.

Working directly with employers: Lake Area Technical College

In 2019, there were 4.4 million unemployed or underemployed 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. who were not enrolled in school—a segment of the population often referred to as “opportunity youth.” As recent worker shortages have pushed wages up for those without a college degree, some opportunity youth have turned to jobs that can now pay up to $20 an hour or more, as with fast food jobs in some urban areas. People employed in these jobs may not see the advantage of an education that will help them begin a career with growth potential. Yet data show that these young people could improve their lives with a high-quality community college credential, and that not receiving one will likely have negative effects on their already vulnerable families and communities. Until colleges can credibly demonstrate—and communicate—the advantages of education, these workers won’t be motivated to overcome affordability and access barriers to attending.

Lake Area Technical College, a small rural college in the midwest and the winner of the 2017 Aspen Prize, has been able to earn the trust of its community by becoming a source of talent for employers and ensuring jobs for graduates. Of the 76% of students that complete Lake Area’s programs in three years, 99% are employed a year after graduation. To boot, Lake Area alumni make 27% more than other new graduates in the region. Why? Because the students are prepared for work—and prepared for the right jobs. Lake Area leaders work closely with employers to make sure there is demand for their graduates. All students participate in work-based learning to build the actual skills employers are looking for in employees. Students move through structured, cohort-based programs that are consistently tailored to evolving industry needs. Students stay on track at Lake Area, and they complete, get jobs, and succeed. These students are a living testimony to the promise of higher education in their communities. Delivering value has been good for enrollments too, which have increased 61% over the last decade, from about 1,600 students to more than 2,600.

What do these colleges have in common? Their success in graduating students with degrees that have value in the labor markets—degrees that change lives—earned them the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a million-dollar award granted every two years to the best colleges in the nation. At the College Excellence Program, we are proud to support and promote effective approaches like these, so that other colleges can make good on the promises they make to students. The Aspen Prize is what enables our program to find and elevate these solutions.

On April 20, we will announce the winner of this year’s Aspen Prize. It will be awarded to another college leading the way in delivering on their promises: life-changing educations, community-building solutions, and society-supporting talent.


Community Colleges
Dr. Daisy Gonzales Is a Community College Success Story
January 12, 2023 • College Excellence Program