• September 1, 2015

At Community Colleges' Meeting, Officials Debate How to Deliver More Graduates

As hundreds of community-college leaders gather here this week for the American Association of Community Colleges' annual meeting, a lot of the discussion will center on how to fulfill President Obama's goal of producing five million more graduates from the two-year institutions over the next decade.

So it is no surprise that developing and putting into place strategies to help students succeed academically are themes of many of the sessions. Other panels will focus on how to prepare students for a global economy and challenges facing college leaders.

An ambitious proposition when the president first announced it last year, achieving the goal of more community-college graduates is even more in doubt now. In the student-loan legislation the president signed last month, community colleges received only a fraction of the money Mr. Obama had proposed to help the institutions meet his graduation benchmark.

Rather than the $12-billion over 10 years that Mr. Obama had sought to improve programs, courses, and facilities at community colleges, the final student-loan legislation had only $2-billion for job training.

The assistance in the recently signed Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HR 4872), however, is just a first step toward meeting the president's goal, Martha J. Kanter, U.S. under secretary of education, said here on Sunday afternoon.

Speaking to an audience of roughly 300 people, Ms. Kanter said college graduation rates had remained stagnant too long. The relatively low number of Americans who complete a college degree, compared with other countries, is "a national tragedy," Ms. Kanter said.

"We have to get people to the finish line," she said. "We have to get them to graduate." She called on community colleges to embrace evidence-based research and apply programs that work at their campuses.

Carol J. Spencer, president of San Juan College, in New Mexico, said that regardless of how much federal money is available, the bottom line is that community colleges need to find a way to deliver more graduates.

Ms. Spencer, who was a panelist at a Sunday session about how community colleges were preparing to meet the president's goal, said the president's goal is putting appropriate pressure on community colleges to do what they should have been doing all along.

Her college is especially focused on helping its American Indian students, who make up 30 percent of the student population at San Juan College.

Students there receive lots of one-on-one attention, she said, including mandatory advising sessions and intense tutoring. And faculty and staff members undergo cultural-awareness training.

"If we don't help them play catch-up, we can't get them to graduation," she said.

International Efforts

Internationalization efforts at community colleges were the focus of another session on Sunday. A participant on that panel, Natalie J. Harder, vice president for institutional advancement at Patrick Henry Community College, in Virginia, said community-college students who do not have global experience risk being less valuable to employers than students who do have such experience.

With community colleges educating close to one-half of all undergraduates in the United States, more focus on internationalization is important to ensure American college graduates are competitive in today's global labor pool, Ms. Harder said.

At all types of community colleges—rural, urban, and suburban ones—internationalization efforts are limited, according to a report by Ms. Harder. She said the lack of support from high-level administrators for those efforts is the No. 1 stumbling block that keeps community colleges from internationalizing their campuses, including making it part of the mission statement, recruiting international students, and hiring faculty of various nationalities.

Sometimes that lack of support stems from the idea that the cost to internationalize a campus will be too high. And other times, community-college officials just think it isn't necessary, Ms. Harder said.

She said community colleges that don't understand the importance are making a mistake because globalization has evened the playing field in terms of where students go to college—it's not just the United States anymore. And, she added, internationalizing a community college doesn't have to be expensive.

"It can mean requiring students to take a foreign-language class," she said. "It can mean offering internationalization-related extracurricular activities. It can mean providing information on study-abroad programs."

Student Learning

Community-college officials also held a session on Sunday about improving student learning.

Among the ideas college officials on the panel advocated are integrating social media into course work, requiring students to attend orientation and a life-skills course, and creating an early-alert system that would identify students before they fail.

Steve Piscitelli, who teaches history at Florida State College at Jacksonville, said he's found that, to increase retention, he must make sure to engage and connect with his students.

One way to do that, he said, is through social media. While not a fan at first, he has become a convert to it.

"Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay," Mr. Piscitelli said. "Why not use it to engage students?"

He has created a Facebook fan page for his study-skills class. He posts videos of himself talking about the course work and asks students to respond to questions.

At the College of Southern Nevada, Robert M. Sherfield, who teaches technical writing there, started an orientation program that welcomes parents, is offered in Spanish, and takes place over the weekend.

The almost three-hour-long session includes presentations from faculty members and a campus tour.

When the program started a year and a half ago, the sessions were not a big draw. About 20 to 30 people would show up, but as word got out attendance got better. Now the college sees about 300 people per session.

Mr. Sherfield said the idea for the unusual orientation is based on research that links strong orientation programs with high retention rates. Since the program is relatively new, it is too early to tell what kind of effect it will have on retention rates at the two-year college. .

"Previous data has shown that it works at other community colleges," Mr. Sherfield said. "We are hoping for the same result."


1. gkllevy - April 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Like probably many community college instructors of a "gatekeeper" course, Composition I in my case, I feel an enormous presssure to pass students with a C or higher so that they are eligible to enroll in other college-level courses. There is also a lot of pressure to use strategies to help students pass, some of which are talked about (e.g., tutoring, early alert system, social networking, etc.) and some of which are not (e.g., fewer or easier assignments, grade inflation, weaker attendance policies, etc.). What seems to be absent from the conversations these days is equal emphasis on "academic rigor" and "student responsibility."

2. intered - April 19, 2010 at 01:50 pm

Here we go again.

Please . . . let's not let this discussion degrade into the standard-issue, empirically unfounded argument that increasing graduation rates lowers quality.

First, most discussants have no objective data, much less sound definitions, to support their claims about quality.

Second, while some seem to believe that quality is somehow increased by restricting inputs or process flow (we get "high quality" graduates when we allow only "high quality" admissions), this must be seen for the bad logic it represents. The idea of quality has to do with meeting a specific purpose for a specific audience. It begins with inputs and examines value added.

At the most general level, increasing graduation rates involves paying more attention to individual learners. When you pay attention, you learn what the individual student needs to ensure that he meets his goals by way of a constructive learning experience. Sometimes, retention to graduation is as simple as providing a little coaching on time management. Sometimes, learning how to learn more efficiently is the issue. Occasionally, a student lacks the attributes necessary to succeed in a particular program. In such cases, coaching into a more appropriate program is a desirable alternative to allowing the student to flounder and fail because we were not paying attention.

A few modern institutions have developed specific roles and policies to accomplish high rates of retention to graduation. They work. Their quality does not suffer and may improve. The tide rises and all boats rise with it.

3. deepwater - April 19, 2010 at 02:52 pm

Taking a wild guess, I would think that what "society" would want for its members is a system of education that enabled each individual to maximize their potential. And that this potential would translate into some life activity that would benefit both the individual and the society as a whole. In my opinion our education system has failed a significant portion of our society in both the identification of their potential as well as the means to achieve it. Ultimately, a discussion about how to increase "graduation rates" only serves to further mask the fundamental problem.

4. maddude - April 19, 2010 at 02:59 pm

We see "intered" pointing fingers at others for their lack of "objective data" yet refers to an UNIDENTIFIED "few modern institutions" as examples to support his claim for the existence of successful retention/graduation strategties.

Well kumbaya to you, "intered". Where do you suppose these unnamed, obviously superior in your eyes, institutions find the funds to develop individualized teaching/learning strategies (if that's what they're using --- you really didn't cite anything concrete)?

Next time you point fingers at those who "have no objective data, much less sound definitions, to support their claims about quality.", you may want to offer stronger support to your own claims...

5. intered - April 19, 2010 at 07:33 pm


You make a good point regarding the divergence between what we deliver and what might be more beneficial to students. It makes me wonder about the potential for coalescing stakeholders' otherwise divergent interests. It is possible that being out of touch with the true needs of students, including how their needs are changing (a condition that appears to me to be endemic in HE), is a proximate cause of both failing to retain students and, as you put it, failing to assist in maximizing personal and social potential. If so, structuring solutions to listen better would address both issues. We're pretty sure it represents an efficient path to increased retention but we have never examined the idea that establishing and maintaining closer relations with students might lead to programs that are more beneficial to them . . . but it makes sense.

6. deepwater - April 19, 2010 at 08:09 pm


this is not the best venue for this discussion; however briefly, the educational process must be viewed as a system. It is obviously complex with multiple dependent and independent variables to control...if in fact one might wish to isolate cause effect relationships.

I think Gates and those who wish to control the agenda would be better off funding a longitudinal study where a diverse community would be selected and studied. Using experimental research methods, the study would manipulate the situations within and across important developmental periods such as prenatal, preschool, K-12, and post high school. Family influence would also have to be controlled for as well.

One might predict that, as early childhod researchers have determined, that the earliest years of a child's development is most important to future success. Helping the student identify their uniqueness as a strength and then establishing an educational plan supporting the development of that strength (as the child develops) would seem to me to must more effective than largely viewing students as similar and equally benefiting from the massification of education.

7. intered - April 20, 2010 at 12:12 am


It appear that your focus is on broad social and early to mid-lifespan development issues. These are worthy causes although life's unpredictable exigencies and the general messiness of family and social processes generally place limits on how much variance can be controlled in the interest of experimental inferences.

Not unlike the Gates foundation on a much smaller scale, I look for modest opportunities to secure leverage that will produce incremental improvement within existing structures, inadequate though they may be. Affordable educational opportunities have disappeared for many in the lower middle class and virtually all of the lower class. When students from the underclass are able to attend college, usually a community college, they are not prepared to succeed, thus my concern with developing systems to improve retention, the sweet spot of convergence among all stakeholders in higher education.

8. deepwater - April 20, 2010 at 03:16 am


well stated. I agree we need to employ both long, short, and perhaps even middle term strategies. I think there are some thoughtful grassroot strategies being applied by hardworking dedicated folks. At the same time, I wish there was more debate/discussion challenging the models we use. This sounds judgemental and unkind; however, I wish the political appointees and other influential leaders would utilize a bit more sophisticated analysis. It just isn't as simple as they make it out to be. If it were, we would have legislated "quality" a long time ago.

9. parsonfrog - April 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm


As someone who teaches courses beyond those "gatekeeper" courses, I wish you were under pressure from the other direction. When students slide through those courses without needed academic skills, they end up doing poorly in other courses. Worst of all, they wind up wasting their time because they do not what they should be getting (and think they are getting) from college. We do those students a real disservice. It makes for good statistics, but it's those marginal (or below) students that are paying the price (getting screwed, to be blunt about it).

10. optimysticynic - April 27, 2010 at 08:32 pm

Argue theory all you like. I am in academic student services and I daily experience the pressure to downgrade expectations and requirements. We now give unlimited numbers of hours credit for "life experience", transfer in all sorts of nonacademic coursework, allow students to bankrupt unlimited hours of previous coursework,e tc. OF COURSE quality drops when you do these things with an eye only on the numbers!! It may not theoretically have to be this way, but it is, in practice. The easiest way to generate the numbers is to hand out diplomas. Who on your campus is monitoring quality? Count them. Now count who is monitoring numbers. Nuff said.

11. intered - April 28, 2010 at 11:28 am


You say, "We now give **unlimited numbers of hours credit** for "life experience", transfer in all sorts of nonacademic coursework, allow students to bankrupt unlimited hours of previous coursework . . ." (emphasis mine).

Do you really? Perhaps you could give us the name of your institution? I am familiar with the prior learning assessment standards at most colleges and I can't imagine what school you might represent. I think you are not telling the truth. Virtually all PLA programs adhere to CAEL and ACE standards which include, among other things, strict limits on the nature and number of credits one can earl via this method. Most schools cap PLA at 15-30 hours and several surveys of students show that in retrospect, they would have taken a course instead because the documentation was difficult. Some ACE transfers are a bit different in that creditworthiness is conservatively assigned to standardized corporate and other non-traditional higher education. I can tell you that most of your students would have a much tougher time passing a management course at Microsoft or Motorola than one offered at your college, and the learning outcomes would be significantly more authentic.

Separately, do you believe that the classroom is the only way one can gain subject matter expertise and, more importantly, the post-course workplace of personal proficiencies associated to that expertise? If so, I would recommend that you study the learning sciences a little.

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