Report: 8 key trends impacting community colleges

Community college trends

Keeping pace with cutting-edge technology and keeping students in school are chief among the top challenges facing community colleges, according to the report  “Eight Important Questions for Eleven Community College Leaders: An Exploration of Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies.”

Community colleges are grappling with a number of complex issues -- properly assessing readiness for traditional college courses, effectively supporting remedial students, successfully developing job training partnerships with local businesses, absorbing budget cuts and integrating online learning into the curriculum – but a sampling of 11 administrators and education experts nationwide shows that keeping up with technology and getting students to complete their higher education top their list of key challenges.

The news comes at a time when community colleges are experiencing what some would call a Renaissance. They are increasingly being discussed as a viable and affordable alternative to traditional four-year schools, as students question the value of a pricey four-year college degree amid a recession and a tight job market. While college tuition is currently rising at an annual rate of about 5 percent--in keeping with the annual rate of increase over the past two decades--the average amount of debt per student for the class of 2011 is up 8 percent over last year, leaving students (or their parents) with an average of $29,000 in student-loan debt.

Is there a consensus about what it means to be college ready?

Administrators were asked if there was a standard definition of being “college ready,” and if the typical testing being applied to incoming community college students measures whether or not they are college-ready.

“The systems in place at many community colleges to identify whether or not an incoming student can realistically be considered ready for college are not exactly working very well. Plus, there seems to be no real consensus of what it means to be college ready, at least from the testing point of view, according to the report. 

“Current testing for college placement has been found to be woefully lacking in the ability to place students accurately in remedial courses,” said Terry O’Banion, re­ferring to research published in the Community College Research Center’s Assessment of Evidence Series. He is President Emeritus and Senior League Fellow of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College said the definition of being a prepared student is experiencing seismic shifts. We’ve had this wild pendulum swing from expectations of a broadly educated, reasoning, problem-solving, scientific-thinking, literate adult at the point of graduation from high school to a reductionist model of having a handful of skills that makes them somewhat employable and ready to take freshman-level classes,” he said.

Keeping students on the path to completion

The survey participants were also asked what solutions seem to work best in getting remedial students on the right path to academic success and ultimately toward college completion, and how educational technologies can help.

Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, pointed to a successful example: Foothill College’s award-winning Math My Way program, a revamped way of teaching math that has resulted in the highest success rate in math courses in California.

“Remarkably what’s happened is that instead of students running away from Foothill College [because of remedial math challenges], they are running toward Foothill College because the word is out that this is where you go to deal with math problems,” Thor said.

Shugart mentioned Valencia Community College’s implementation of Life Map, an online career development service that helps students become more engaged in the process of discovering their educational and career pathways. “It’s a huge suite of tools that helps students get connected and figure out a direction,” he said. “We are wondering now if it would be possible to create an en­tirely online course or a series of course expe­riences that we can give away to students as they approach college that would help them discern their purpose in coming or not coming to college.”

Key challenges in the future: technology, funding

When the panel of interviewees were asked about the most pressing issues facing community colleges now and into 2016, three issues were commonly cited: keeping abreast of changes in technology, deciding how to assess student performance and the quality of instruction and having to do more with less resources.

“Another area about the future relates to keeping up with technology. The Millennials and Gen Xers [sic] are walking around campus with something in both hands, communicating back and forth. That behooves us, and the faculty, and staff ranks to make sure that we have the appropriate communication skills and the delivery-of-instruction skills to meet their needs and the way they learn,” said Donald Cameron, president of Guilford Technical Community College.

Gerardo de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, sees technology as being a game changer for community college business models.

“Perhaps we will be seeing an increase in partnerships between commu­nity colleges and some for-profits. There may be some opportunities, particularly as we’re looking at using technology to be innovative along with the proliferation of open courseware. That’s going to evolve and emerge as a game changer, because it could change the whole concept of the busi­ness model for higher education.

“If we see this great proliferation of sophisticated in-depth, high qual­ity, media-rich, open courseware sanctioned by faculty and the community colleges, it will change the business model and at least change the role of faculty in the classroom as we talk about the future,” said de los Santos.

Ed Gould, superintendent and president of Imperial Valley College, said community colleges will be faced with the task of trying to retain community public interest programs – such as English as a Second Language and citizenship courses – while demand for a greater focus on college readiness and career-technical programs increases.

Along with increased popularity and prominence in the future, community colleges will also be more closely scrutinized, said Shugart.

“More people will recognize that community colleges are a dominant mode of access to higher education in America, and they’ll take us seriously for that. Their expectations are going to go up even as our results improve. That may be expressed in policy and in funding, but certainly it’s going to be expressed in educational measures,” he said. “So I expect five years from now we will begin to see the first very serious use across the country of public disclosure of institutional performance metrics. It’s important that they be the right measures, or they’ll create perverse behaviors and incentives.”

The report was conducted in partnership with Western Governors University, a non-profit online university that offers bachelor and master degrees and was published by The Source, a new site covering community college issues, policies and trends.