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Building Bridges: Connecting Pathways To Lead Somewhere

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On May 23, the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal released an important new study describing how best to strengthen community colleges to achieve socioeconomic mobility for more Americans. Led by co-chairs Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library and former president of Amherst College, and Eduardo Padrone, the president of Miami Dade College, the task force found growing racial and economic stratification between two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Supported by the Ford Foundation, this study offered tactics to reduce stratification and create new outcomes-based funding, suggesting a greater concentration and targeting of public support based on student needs.

There is much to credit here. The Century Foundation task force identifies the extraordinary demographic shifts in the remarkable evolution of two-year community colleges that now enroll nearly half of the college-going population in America. Further, they identify stratification among two-year institutions, and the failure of state and federal government funders to deal with it, as especially troubling. Notably, the task force also calls attention to growing inequality between two-year and four-year applicants.

Hopefully, state and federal policymakers will understand and appreciate the need to study this issue and act quickly as the United States sinks comparatively among developed nations in the production of an educated workforce.

The early response to the study is intriguing. Much of it focuses on how to fund efforts to guarantee access to permit generations to use their education to achieve the classic American dream of upward mobility. The task force argues for greater Title I-style funding, seeing government as a lead player in the solution to providing access and alleviating stratification. Interestingly, its members also call upon four-year colleges and universities to commit a minimum of 5 percent of their junior class to accepted two-year graduates who have applied.

Within the report, the task force cites the programs of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Edvance Foundation as especially innovative examples to review. While serving as president of Bucknell University, we participated in a Cooke Foundation multi-year pilot study to attract two-year graduates to the University. This study became the basis for the Edvance Foundation's Nexpectation Network, now through its planning phase and moving toward a staged national implementation. There are lessons we have learned already that might add value to subsequent thinking on the Century Foundation report.

The first lesson is that higher education is a continuum, or more precisely, a pathway. There is little doubt that education is a critical policy question that requires thoughtful conversation, better research, and a more expansive worldview linked to the global positioning of the American workforce in the 21st century. It is essential to support community colleges but this support should also determine their purpose. Are community colleges centers for workforce development or are they lower division points of access leading to a four-year degree?

The second lesson is that funding must come from common purpose. It is somewhat sophomoric to argue that we should bleed the defense budget to pay for education as some readers have subsequently suggested. It's a waste of ammunition, and more tragically, of time even if it's a good idea. In funding strategies, education must play to win. If more state and federal support is directed -- appropriately -- toward community colleges, what is our collective will about how we fund education? Linked to assessment, funding must come from disparate sources including government, corporations, foundations and individual philanthropists. No single source can fix the growing disparities in education funding as a national priority.

The third lesson is that we must set the issues of growing stratification within context. Some of the new research undertaken must incorporate better analysis on how students learn. In a complex world of for-profit providers, public institutions, online learning and independent colleges and universities, remedial now means more than not ready academically. Higher education must forge better connections with basic education, restructure its application process, and modify its expectations to account for differences between how and what students have learned and what we are prepared to teach them when they arrive.

And finally, four-year colleges and universities must understand that the four-color glossy brochure is an insufficient tool to attract 21st-century students. If only the world were legacies and student athletes from the right zip codes -- but alas, these days have ended at most colleges. Beyond state and federal support, public and independent colleges and universities commit billions annually in institutional aid to support their students. Seeing two-year graduates for what they are - a fundamental building block added to legacies and athletes to complete a diverse incoming class - will broaden the admissions pool. The resources are there. The task will be to link vision and strategy by connecting the dots.

The Century Foundation has provided an extraordinary service by focusing on community colleges as a stop along an educational pathway that makes the American dream plausible for millions of Americans. Their findings open the door to conversation about the deeper problems facing American higher education. Change is seldom orderly and the proposed actions to strengthen community colleges would have profound effects throughout higher education. Hats off to the Century Foundation for ringing the bell to open a much larger discussion about how best to craft climate for success in America.

We have much good work ahead of us to get done quickly. We have no alternative in a global economy. But, it's a lasting legacy that might define a century.