community colleges

Community colleges don’t get great outcomes today; Here are 3 clarifying steps they can take to change that.


Mar 4, 2021

With the ascendancy of Dr. Jill Biden to America’s First Lady, the policy spotlight is turning once again to community colleges.

I’ve written before about why most community colleges are structurally unable to deliver reliably on the three missions with which they are tasked—academic transfer, career preparedness and training, and community enrichment—and why simply showering them with resources to bolster college transfer or employment-aligned upskilling is unlikely to work.

But this raises the question: What should a community college do to improve and solve its inherent mission conflicts? Some community colleges do manage to get much better results than others, so there is hope.

Here are three steps community colleges can take:

First, clarify and focus on one mission.

Seeking to perform multiple missions in one program won’t work because the missions require actions that are often diametrically opposed to one another. Satisfying one mission often means working against the other two.

This doesn’t mean community colleges can’t seek to do all three missions per se—although it will be challenging given the challenging logistics, complex operations, and required resources. It does mean they must separate and silo different programs by mission so that any one program is laser-focused on serving students on only one of these missions. And that means treating these different programs like distinct entities or divisions.

In an interview with the EvoLLLution, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley’s comments help show why separating these functions is critical:

“Many of our faculty and college administrators don’t understand why we need something like Calbright, but this pandemic is really exposing that need. For one, it’s focused on serving adult learners. Secondly, it’s focused on upskilling rather than offering traditional certificate and degree programs. People are starting to understand what that means now that we have millions of people unemployed.”

The fact that Calbright is separate from the other community colleges and has a distinct mission is imperative for that mission to see the light of day.

Second, clarify and focus on the Job to Be Done for students.

Relatedly, within any given program with a specific mission, focus on serving students that have a common Job to Be Done. That is, students are enrolling in a similar set of circumstances and with a similar set of motivations.

As with trying to serve multiple missions, trying to be all things to all people has a cost—in both overall effectiveness and overhead costs.

In our research, organizations that focus on just one Job to Be Done develop efficient processes. And those processes can be all be aimed in the same direction to support students with a common set of challenges to make progress toward a purposeful and fulfilling life.

In the case of community colleges, that’s critical because understanding why students are enrolling can be the difference-maker in major design choices. For example, when a student who is seeking to step it up in their life enters a program, a guided pathway—in which a student moves through a clear, fixed set of learning experiences up-front that result in their desired outcome—will be impactful. But a guided pathway is the exact opposite of what a student who is enrolling in school to escape from their current reality needs, as we detailed in our book Choosing College.

Having a one-size-fits-all program can’t do both, so community colleges need to create programs that are focused on one of their specific missions and focused on serving students with a specific Job to Be Done.

Third, clarify what student success looks like for each program and measure.

Given that their different programs will have different missions and students will come to programs with different Jobs to Be Done, it makes sense that student success will look different in different programs. A one-size-fits-all set of measures won’t work.

For example, some community college presidents complain that measuring their performance by graduation rates misleads because many students enroll to gain skills that will help them get promoted. Once the students accomplish their purpose and get that promotion, they drop out because earning a degree wasn’t a critical part of their Job to Be Done. The community college was successful in helping the student make progress, but it gets penalized by a traditional measure.

That’s a legitimate gripe. But that doesn’t mean that community colleges shouldn’t measure outcomes. It just means that the outcome-based metrics will differ across programs.

If something like the graduation-job promotion tension is the case for a program, then it’s incumbent upon the community college to come up with other outcomes-based metrics of success to track its performance.

The reasons are multiple: so that it can build buy-in among its faculty and staff about what success looks like, commit to continuous improvement, and showcase a fairer representation of its value for prospective students and external stakeholders, including regulators.

Choosing the relevant outcomes-based metrics and then measuring them by using definitions outlined by third-party entities like the Education Quality Outcome Standards Board—and then having those reported outcomes audited—would add further trust to the so that regulators and the public don’t feel like the results are being manipulated.

Perhaps the relevant metrics will be job placement and salary growth. For another program, the relevant outcomes might also include passing a specific assessment. Or for the academic transfer mission, completion and transfer might be the outcomes to track. The key is to have clarity for each program and then create a process of consistent measurement that is used for goal-setting and improvement.

That, in turn, can help community colleges deliver the value that their students and society so desperately need.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.