In the aftermath of the last recession, the higher education answer for many policymakers to help adults reskill was to send them to community college. With the notable exception of President Trump, community colleges remain politically popular in many quarters and with significant parts of their communities.
People pin their hopes on community colleges being the engine of economic mobility through everything from training America’s future workforce to serving as the affordable transfer station to four-year colleges.
But we should be wary before thinking that community colleges can serve effectively as the answer for the millions of Americans needing to upskill in the aftermath of the nation’s current pandemic-induced recession.
According to the conventional statistics at least, community colleges consistently disappoint. Of those who enter community colleges, for example, 80% expect to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 17% do within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Although community college advocates often correctly claim that graduation rates are a faulty measure for the value that they provide, the conventional outcome metrics don’t totally mislead.
As constituted currently, counting on the nation’s community colleges to deliver consistently and at scale for the nation’s hopes is a pipe dream.
This isn’t because noble and smart people don’t work at community colleges. They do. It also isn’t because community colleges haven’t made education far more accessible. They have.
It’s because community colleges have multiple value propositions, which result in extraordinarily complex—some might say confused—institutions where there are significant overhead costs and constraints around the ability to act and optimize around any one of the important roles they play.
Community colleges have at least three important missions:
1. Academic transfer: Helping students transfer to four-year bachelor degree programs;
2. Career preparedness/training: Helping students gain critical skills and credentials for regional jobs, and helping employers fill talent pipelines;
3. Community enrichment: Helping community members—from the young to the old—continue to learn about and delve deeply into topics of interest to them.
Fulfilling any one of these works against the others.
For example, a focus on academics causes most community colleges to require a traditional set of general education courses that have arisen out of the academy—like English and math—and offer many degrees that don’t, in the short term, align with the needs of the workforce. It also causes them to shoehorn career education programs into associate’s degrees that lack value in the labor market. Adding various supports for students to support them in transferring to four-year colleges can over-serve community members simply seeking more learning.
Trying to be all things to all people causes an institution to offer a set of services that are all suboptimal. It also drives up overhead costs—one reason community colleges often complain that they are under-resourced, even as their expenditures per student thanks to the government subsidies they receive are generally three to four times more than their listed tuition prices.
Contrast this with an institution like Western Governors University that is laser-focused on one mission and prices its programs at roughly $6,000 per year with no subsidy, and the challenge with having multiple missions begins to become clearer.
Community colleges not only struggle with this complexity from the supply side—meaning from the perspective of what they are trying to accomplish as institutions in their communities—but also from the perspective of the demand side—meaning what students want.
In our research in Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, we learned that students attend community college to do at least four different “Jobs to Be Done” in their lives—from helping them do what’s expected of them to helping them get away and from helping them step it up to helping them extend themselves.
Serving students in each of these jobs means crafting vastly different experiences, which further adds to the complexity facing community colleges.
For example, guided pathway programs—in which students move through a clear, fixed set of learning experiences with little choice—have become popular at community colleges. Research suggests that, on average, guided pathway programs boost completion.
But talk to a counselor at a community college, and you realize quickly that they aren’t working for everyone. That’s because guided pathway programs are an excellent fit for someone who knows what they want to do and is hiring the community college to help them step it up—but it’s a terrible fit for a student who is enrolling to do what’s expected of them or to get away when they have little clarity about what they want to do next.
For the student enrolling in the community college to help them step it up, a broad range of course choices, distributional requirements in a range of disciplines, and standard general education requirements are a poor fit. They will often be unnecessary, and they could also be harmful, as they could cause students to have challenges getting into the courses they need for their major, take courses they do not need, and therefore graduate late with additional debt.
But students looking to college to help them get away, for example, are just running from something, not necessarily toward something. They are unlikely to be ready to enroll in a specific “meta major” that will limit their options. Instead, they would be better served by a series of short immersive experiences—not traditional courses—in a range of fields to help them begin to understand what it is they like and don’t like and what their strengths are.
Optimizing for students in one of these jobs is suboptimal for the other jobs. Trying to balance across them is suboptimal for all.
Dealing with this demand-side complexity simply compounds the challenges facing community colleges from the complexity they already face on the supply side. It further drives up overhead costs, lowers quality, and reduces the odds that community colleges will be the answer at scale to America’s economic mobility and reskilling challenges during this time when our nation and its citizens so sorely need such services.