No Silver Bullet: Transforming Community Colleges

Published sep. 30, 2015

President Obama has taken a bold step with his proposal to make two years of community college free. However, those of us who work in or with higher education know that there is no silver bullet or simple solution to fix our nation’s history of denying college access and success for low-income students, students of color, and underprepared students. Free community college—if designed carefully—might expand access to college. But that is only part of the answer given that community colleges graduate far too few students. We need to do far more than simply expand access, which is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery.

JFF is a leader in the pathways movement, designed to stanch the bleeding. Currently, far too many of our community college students face a dizzying array of course choices, very little advice about which courses to take, program options that are disconnected from their career interests, and few supports to keep them engaged and progressing. The results of the current system are clear: only 39 percent of first-time beginning community college students attained a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years. 

Pathways reforms focus on weaving together strategies that research tells us work for students. The sum of all those strategies is pathways with clear academic requirements, on-ramps that lead students to their career interests, comprehensive student supports, educational plans that help students stay on track to finish on time, and tangible possibilities for transfer. 

Building comprehensive pathways is hard work, and colleges can’t do it alone. This work requires systems change. Research demonstrates that some of the most successful efforts to redesign community college pathways require action from a range of partners—from faculty to mayors’ offices, transportation, financial aid, and employers. JFF works closely with state and system leaders through our DesignForScale initiative to break down silos, engage all the critical partners, and ensure that colleges have the supports—financial and structural—they need to undertake the level of transformation called for by pathways reforms.

The ultimate goal is to change our educational system so that “free access” means more than entering college—it means succeeding in college, attaining a credential, getting a good job, and benefiting from economic mobility. We do think that access is important; however, access to the status quo won’t deliver the results we and President Obama are committed to for all students.