WASHINGTON, D.C.—While the U.S. Congress is considering an unprecedented $9 billion in new funding to community colleges in exchange for improved graduation rates, colleges and higher education advocates are already working on a new accountability system that will enable colleges to improve their programs and graduate more students on time and at a lower cost. The project is being funded with $1 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education.
More than 11 million students attend 1,200 community colleges across the country, and enrollment rates have surged in the last year as the recession has forced many Americans to return for additional training and education. Yet many leaders are concerned about the success of those students and how many will actually go on to earn a degree or credential. Without an accepted accountability system that aligns with the multiple missions of community colleges, measuring progress is difficult.
According to federal data sources, college completion rates for two-year degrees (those who enrolled in two-year colleges and completed their degree within three years) are just 28 percent overall, 26 percent for Hispanics and just 23 percent for African-Americans. There is currently no universal system in place to help college leaders and funders understand how to improve the success of community college students.
“Community colleges recognize that it is time we focus on success and not just access for our students,” said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “Community colleges must do whatever is necessary to help students obtain the degrees, credentials, and training they need to be successful in life and be able to document that success in a meaningful way.”
In addition to the AACC, both the College Board and the Association of Community College Trustees have led efforts to launch the project, which began last year with a planning grant from Lumina Foundation. The three organizations will work collaboratively as the work moves into an implementation phase.
“Our goal is to help more students complete college,” said Hilary Pennington, director of Education, Postsecondary Success, and Special Initiatives for the Gates Foundation. “Colleges need accountability systems that will help students maintain, and even accelerate, their effort toward a degree.”
Ultimately, the accountability system could be adopted by all the nation’s community colleges giving them, for the first time, the common metrics and data points to evaluate their effectiveness, both internally and against one another developed specifically for their sector and mission. Eight initial pilot sites for the new system include Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, Dallas Community College District in Texas, Greenville Technical College in South Carolina, Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, Laney College in California, Louisiana Community and Technical College System in Louisiana, Oklahoma City Community College in Oklahoma, and Pima Community College District in Arizona.
This two-year project will result in the creation of a voluntary accountability system to be piloted in up to 20 community colleges by 2011.
“The first step will be to get everyone speaking the same language,” said Lumina CEO Jamie Merisotis, whose foundation will contribute technical expertise as well as share some of the cost of the project. “For example, there is little consistency in how states report retention or graduation rates, so we first must agree on universal measures that are easy to calculate and are meaningful to both college officials and the general public.”
In July, President Obama challenged community colleges to boost their ranks of graduates by 5 million by 2020. The new voluntary accountability system will help community colleges meet that challenge by establishing, for the first time, common performance measurements necessary to evaluate an institution’s effectiveness. It will help provide valuable feedback on programs and services to which officials should direct resources and will allow them to benchmark each individual college’s progress against others. The new measures will also help assure lawmakers and the public that funding through the American Graduation Initiative will be well-spent and provide results.
The grants announced today advance efforts by the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation to help increase the number of people in the United States who successfully earn a degree or certificate beyond high school.