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Let’s Reimagine Community Colleges

April 24, 2024

At A Glance

JFF is introducing a bold vision for the future of higher education with four new postsecondary focus areas — state impact strategy, direct assessment competency-based education, AI, and redesigning college financing. 

Don’t get us wrong—we love community colleges. At their best, they offer the access and upward mobility that is central to making the middle class a reality for many more individuals. Marty previously served as executive vice chancellor of the California community college system, the largest higher education system in the country. And a huge part of our work at Jobs for the Future (JFF) focuses on ensuring that community colleges fulfill their incredible promise.  

Still, as we mark Community College Month, it’s time to completely rethink these institutions, and the broader higher education and workforce systems, too. 

Why? Because we’re overdue for a paradigm shift in U.S. higher education. We need to stop thinking in terms of sectors and silos that place labels on students and institutions, and the types of learners who use them. We may even need to dismantle the entire outdated degree construct and rebuild it with something better. 

When it comes to community colleges, cheering the current system for a month every year leads to a false reassurance that the policies and reforms aimed at the two-year sector have addressed the needs of “those people”—whether the implicit reference is to class, race, first-generation college attendance, or a mixture of all three. In fact, to help all students, and all institutions, we must take a step back from the status quo and recognize that the challenges we face require a completely new approach to postsecondary education.  

That’s the new path JFF will be forging.

Rather than proposing yet another silver bullet solution that risks overpromising and underdelivering, JFF will pioneer a different model.

Today’s challenges—lower enrollment, disappointing completion rates, resistance to innovation—demand new thinking. State policy changes have had limited impact on performance and outcomes for many student populations. Colleges and universities, accustomed to focusing on compliance with rules, cling to static, even archaic, policies and procedures that focus less on student success than on checking bureaucratic boxes. Education resists the external pressures that ought to fuel evolution. No wonder the value and purpose of higher education are under such intense scrutiny. 

There is a better way. It will require educators and institutions, both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, to brand-new types of providers, to match the educational content and experience they offer to the changing landscape around them. Life expectancy is increasing, and the pace of technological and social change is accelerating even faster. The old paradigm of education geared to fostering expertise must be replaced by a new paradigm aimed at developing agility. Young people still need to begin learning early in life. But they must also be prepared to continue learning and evolving, acquiring new skills in short spurts on a regular basis throughout a much longer working life.

From Reform to Transformation: Four New Approaches 

What does this new paradigm mean in practice? Adapting to the emerging landscape means shifting our goal from reform to transformation. Here are four examples of how JFF is moving from simply creating new programs to actively redesigning policies and practices for a new era.  

Approach 1: Taking a Fresh Approach to Guided Pathways

This reform on guided pathways, which has been central to the community college work of JFF and many of our partners, was launched with the best of intentions. With so many students at risk of meandering through college or leaving early because of unstructured decision-making and wasted credits, the guided pathways movement sought to use evidence-based practices to streamline students’ college journeys toward completion.  

However, this framework underestimated the challenge of “implementation compliance,” detracting from meaningful institutional changes. The importance of means and ends became reversed; there is too much focus on mechanisms for implementation, like instituting meta majors that group courses by career interest, or redesigning student onboarding, and not enough on actual outcomes. And degree attainment rates for community colleges remain unacceptably low and starkly divided by race and ethnicity.  

Rather than proposing yet another silver bullet solution that risks overpromising and underdelivering, JFF will pioneer a different model. Our Postsecondary State Impact Strategy will still focus on community colleges but will adopt a new, agile approach designed to accelerate improved population-specific outcomes throughout postsecondary education. 

Our design and strategy are rooted in continuous improvement cycles and have been informed by successes like the overhaul of remedial education—perhaps the most effective achievement of the original guided pathways framework. By centering student data and not being boxed in by traditional notions of “best practices,” many institutions improved outcomes in gateway college-level courses through innovative interventions like co-requisite remediation and technology-assisted academic support.  

Approach 2: Using Direct Assessment Competency-Based Education to Engage Learners, Center Outcomes, and Remove Unnecessary Barriers

We need an agile learning modality to engage learners who have grown up in an age in which they have unlimited access to information and experience a pace of change that is exponential relative to prior generations. 

There’s been much talk in recent years of how competency-based education, or CBE, can use direct assessment to measure the knowledge and skills that a learner has already acquired. But direct assessment CBE, usually accompanied by an emphasis on granting college credit for prior learning in a variety of settings, such as the military or volunteer work, has not revolutionized higher ed. It has been the hallmark of institutions like Western Governors University and in certain divisions of large providers such as Southern New Hampshire University. Yet it has failed to gain widespread traction at the majority of colleges. 

How will agile learning be different? Before, the core reform approach behind direct assessment CBE kept the idea of earning degrees as the cornerstone. That meant certifying course equivalency was the core currency of evaluating prior learning. Now we must put learning at the center. 

This change, in turn, requires a completely agnostic approach to where learning is acquired, and where learning is certified. Only a rigorous focus on effective learning outcomes and broader adoption of cross-organizational, verifiable digital learning and employment records will help direct assessment CBE earn widespread acceptance. This will lead more institutions to routinely support student learning that includes opportunities to practice and learn, plus an emphasis on mastery of content outside of arbitrary time constraints such as hours spent in a classroom.  

Approach 3: Crafting An AI and Automation Strategy Geared to the Future of the Education Workforce

In addition to the need for change in a variety of other industries, from health care and manufacturing to information technology, the education workforce itself will need upskilling and reskilling as automation and AI impact the entire sector. In this sense, the education sector is a bit like the frog in a pot of water that fails to realize it is gradually boiling. In fact, new technology has already made education, one of the largest industry sectors and the economic engine for many communities, ripe for disruption. Consider the work of Teco/Inspirame, a tech start-up that is poised to disrupt the student advising sector by leveraging publicly available data to provide just-in-time counseling services without requiring buy-in or participation from colleges themselves. 

 Entrepreneurial efforts like this send a crucial signal to the education workforce: institutional control, from instruction to student services, will not last forever. Against this backdrop, JFF’s new Center for AI and the Future of Work provides a timely vehicle for rethinking outdated policies, practices, and procedures within higher education. In fact, the astonishing and fast-growing capabilities of AI are not just changing the sector—they’re particularly well-suited for the kind of tailored learning experiences that educators must provide in the new era.  

Approach 4: Dismantling and Rebuilding How We Have Constructed College Financing

This final element will be crucial to bringing the other transformations to life. Performance-based funding, for example, had been adopted in some form in 41 states by 2020, but has had too little impact on institutional outcomes. In principle, the idea of linking state higher ed funding not only to enrollment numbers but to graduation and other meaningful outcomes was powerful. But in practice, this solution didn’t account for the multiple redundancies in the finance system that reinforce the status quo. Colleges need a full audit and redesign of their reporting and incentive systems, including accreditation requirements, to identify where the promise of policy is undermined by implementation constraints. 

JFF will work closely with state partners to improve all aspects of college financing. That will include ensuring that broad policies are implemented carefully and authentically to reach their intended goals. We need to ensure that performance metrics that strengthen the connection between funding and return on investment are implemented across every campus, not just in the college finance department. 

The education sector is a bit like the frog in a pot of water that fails to realize it is gradually boiling.

Looking Ahead 

Walking uncharted paths means that uncertainty is built in. JFF must adopt a learner’s humility, and changes will almost certainly be needed along the way. We aim to move beyond being just an effective partner in implementing policies, or a useful coordinator of people and institutions, to becoming a transformational catalyst and accelerator for the bold evolution of postsecondary systems.  

It’s an ambitious undertaking, no question. But there’s ample evidence that even slow-moving systems can make fast and dramatic changes. Take the can-do attitude we saw in higher ed sparked by the pandemic. In California alone, 22 regulatory code changes helped support students by revising grading policy, emergency withdrawal rules, curriculum approval, faculty and staff evaluation, and more. A range of college stakeholder groups came away with a collective “a-ha” moment: If we wanted to make these changes, we should—and we could. 

In that spirit, we want us all to use Community College Month to reimagine not just community colleges but the entire enterprise of higher education. We need to elevate, empower, and require all institutions to realize their promise. This isn’t to minimize the important work that has already been accomplished. It is to emphasize that we see something much, much better ahead. 

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