Why Philanthropy Should Help Strengthen Community Colleges

Thursday, April 17, 2014

By Nicole Rodriguez Leach, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation

Research shows the increasing importance of the post-secondary credential to one’s ability to participate in the labor market in this knowledge economy. It is predicted that in our not-too-distant future, over 60% of jobs in the U.S. will require one. However, a fully supported path, with high-quality opportunities and experiences along it, toward a degree is not available to all. A large swath of students are left ill-prepared to enter the 21st century global workforce.

What are the best opportunities for philanthropy to build accessible onramps to the pathway to post-secondary success in both college and career for all?

Over recent years, policymakers, educators and philanthropy have increasingly highlighted the challenge of maintaining a college educated workforce in the U.S. Across the country, high school graduation and college enrollment rates are up but college graduation rates remain dismally low. Attention at all levels has turned to preparing young people to succeed in college. Some of the most promising work in this area is being done in New York City, particularly in its community colleges – institutions that reflect the diversity, assets and challenges of the city and neighborhoods they call home. As the entry point for many students – both nationally and locally – to higher education and the labor market, community colleges have a tremendous impact on the social and economic fabric of families, communities and society at large.

On March 27th, the third in a series of forums on college readiness and success took place. Organized by NYC Youth Funders network in partnership with Philanthropy New York, “CUNY: The Road to College Success” was just as informative and engaging as the ones that came before it. We were joined by an esteemed panel: CUNY Interim Chancellor William Kelly; Dr. Felix Matos-Rodriguez, President of Hostos Community College in the Bronx; Jim Marley, Assistant Executive Director of Good Shepherd Services; Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Director of the Young Adults and Postsecondary Education Policy area at MDRC; and Elizabeth Olofson, Executive Director of the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation, who served as the moderator. The vantage points presented allowed us to examine systems level dynamics, college-level (on-the-ground) innovations and challenges, nonprofit partnership and point of view, and research findings of recent experiments.

The panel shared a few stats worth highlighting here:

  • 80% of students in the U.S. attend public university systems and half of the undergraduate students are in community colleges
  • Upon graduation from high school, half of NYC public school students go on to CUNY; half of that group attends community colleges
  • 78% of students who enter NYC community colleges require remediation in at least one academic area; 90% of Hostos students require one remedial course while 33% require three
  • 80% of 4th quartile (high) income earners has a 4-year degree while only 10% of the 1st quartile has a 4-year degree

These and other statistics are compelling and make the case for why philanthropy should turn its attention to strengthening community colleges’ ability to deliver on their role and importance in developing pathways to post-secondary success. While there is more recent national attention to these institutions from the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, community colleges still go largely overlooked and under-resourced.

The panelists left us with several imperatives. We must:

  • See opportunity where others see problems, and support organizations and efforts that take the same approach with students and schools.
  • Place high value on the impact for students of financial support, as well as proper and intensive advising.
  • Consider support for comprehensive and continuous programs, which are shown to matter more than light-touch programs.
  • Remember that higher education deals with summer slide as well – it’s not simply a K-12 phenomenon.
  • Look to the lessons learned from CUNY central’s initiatives like ASAP and CUNY START, and support community colleges to apply them to their specific circumstances when designing and    implementing their innovative programs.
  • Learn what IS working and why – there are examples across the city.
  • Pay attention to outstanding issues for community colleges, particularly support to part-time students and English Language Learners, and alternate means of assessment out of remediation.
  • Be comprehensive in our approach to making the most compelling case for investments in community college reform: Use a combination of statistics, anecdotal stories and ROI.

It’s time for reform. No longer should community colleges be considered second chance high schools, but instead as the critical lifelines to economic success that they are.

Nicole Rodriguez Leach is a Vice President at Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation.

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