New Aspen Institute Report Details How Nation’s Most Effective Community Colleges Partner Across Sectors to Improve Outcomes for Low-Income and Minority Students

June 23, 2016

Strategic partnerships with high schools, four-year universities, and employers pay off with higher graduation rates and family-sustaining careers for underserved students who often fall through the cracks

Contact: Gingle Lee
Program Manager, College Excellence Program, 202-736-3504

Washington, DC, June 23, 2016 – The Aspen Institute today released a new evidence-based report designed to help more community colleges across the country close the achievement gap and lift more low-income students out of poverty and into self-sustaining careers. The Aspen report, Structural Equity: Big-Picture Thinking & Partnerships that Improve Community College Student Outcomes, describes how community colleges have achieved exceptional and improving outcomes for students while also narrowing or eliminating success gaps among students of various racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The full report is available online at:

The report calls for community colleges to engage in “big-picture” thinking that redefines student success beyond access or completion. “Exceptional community colleges that have closed equity gaps have defined their own success by the role they play in advancing opportunity across students’ educational trajectories—from when students are in K-12 all the way through to whether they succeed after transferring to a four-year institution or entering the labor market,” said Keith Witham, assistant professor of higher education at Temple University, and one of the contributing authors of the report.

While access to higher education has grown considerably for low-income students and students of color over the past decades, the rates at which those students succeed in completing or transferring to a four-year university remain low and have been slow to improve. Among all undergraduates nationwide, two-thirds of American Indian students and more than half of African American and Latino students enroll in community colleges. And roughly 4 out of 10 community college students are Pell Grant recipients. Nationwide, however, only 10% of low-income students, first generation college students, and students of color transfer from community college and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

“For students who have faced a lifetime of limited opportunities, the ability to enroll does not translate into equal opportunity for success when it comes to completion, graduation, transfer or career opportunity,” said Josh Wyner, executive director at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and co-author of the guide. “The most effective community colleges not only graduate large numbers of students from underserved communities but also pave their way to good career opportunities. And they do so by working intentionally beyond the campus walls to create a seamless educational pathway for students.”

The guide highlights the success of community colleges that are the driving force behind robust, cross-sector partnerships that include elementary, middle and high schools, four-year universities and employers, and take into account their unique needs as well as those of the students enrolled on their campuses.

The report profiles four community colleges that are reversing the trends of educational and economic disparity in their communities through such big-picture thinking and strategic partnerships:

  • El Paso Community College (TX) – Close partnerships with local high schools have resulted in 74% of El Paso’s high school seniors who participate in early college programs graduating with an associate’s degree and a high school diploma, nearly double the rate for students in similar programs nationwide.
  • Lake Area Technical Institute (SD) – Using data to focus on the needs of low-income students has resulted in the complete elimination of graduation rate disparities between Pell Grant-eligible students and non-Pell students. In 2015, Pell students even outperformed non-Pell students with a graduation rate of 84% compared to 79% respectively.
  • Santa Barbara City College (CA) – Partnering with local school districts to build college aspirations and improve curricular alignment between high school and college has resulted in far more students going to college, starting better prepared, and transferring to four-year colleges. This is especially true for the region’s growing population of first-generation Latino students.
  • Valencia College (FL) – A deep partnership with University of Central Florida (UCF) to create a seamless transfer experience has led to 64% of transfer students earning a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring to UCF. Valencia has also increased associate degree completion rates of Latino students by more than 10 percentage points.

Funded by Lumina Foundation, the Structural Equity guide is the latest in a series of practice guides developed by Aspen to help colleges significantly improve student success, including:

To learn more, go to:

The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program aims to advance higher education practices, policies, and leadership that significantly improve student outcomes. Through the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the New College Leadership Project, and other initiatives, the College Excellence Program works to improve colleges’ understanding and capacity to teach and graduate students, especially the growing population of low-income and minority students on American campuses.


View Comments