For most of the last century, community colleges were designed to expand students' access to higher education. But in recent years, they've been asked to put unemployed Americans back to work, quickly prepare students for specific technology jobs, and catapult others into four-year institutions, according a report released today by the American Association of Community Colleges.
"Now, there's a focus on accountability," says Walter Bumphus, president of the AACC. "We were founded on the premise of being open-access institutions, but recently there's been a pivot to focus more on student success. There's a focus not just on having them transfer [to four-year schools], but on getting them into the workforce."
But despite that increased focus on excellence, community colleges are still struggling to graduate students. According to the report, Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation's Future, less than half of students who enter a community college graduate or transfer to a four-year college within six years.
Still, the number of students enrolled in America's 1,200 community colleges has skyrocketed. In 2000, about 5.5 million degree-seeking students attended two-year colleges. In the 2010-2011 school year, that number jumped to more than 8 million.
Bumphus attributes that jump to the economic downturn—a year's tuition at a community college costs less than $3,000 on average, compared to more than $8,000 annually for in-state tuition at a four year college—as well as community colleges' reputation for training students for jobs.
"I think people realize community colleges can be a vehicle to get them into the working world a lot quicker," he says. "Folks also figured out that the quality of the courses in freshman and sophomore year at community colleges were comparable or better than four-year schools."
Community colleges have typically served an important demographic—students who either couldn't afford four-year institutions and people who are returning to school after a break. According to the report, more than 40 percent of community college students are first-generation college attendees, and more than half are older than 22 years old. About 15 percent of community college students already have a bachelor's degree and are returning for a career change.
Over the past several decades, the percentage of the American workforce with associate degrees has skyrocked: In 1973, just 12 percent of the workforce had an associate degree. By 2007, that figure was 27 percent, and is expected to grow to 29 percent by 2018.
While there are many community colleges doing good work, Bumphus says significant improvements need to be made if they want to become the "community career centers" that President Obama suggested in this year's State of the Union address, when he set a goal of training 2 million Americans with skills that lead directly to a job.
Bumphus says community colleges need to develop better diagnostic tests to determine students' skill deficiencies so they can enter the correct remedial classes.
"I think generally most community colleges are laser-focused on preparing students for a job, but some are doing a better job than others," he says. "We need to do a better job of moving the bar and graduating more students."