Community Colleges and College Attainment

President Obama has set a new goal for the country: that by 2020, America would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

We have a lot of work to do in order to achieve this. For the past 20 years, the United States has been stuck at a 38 percent college attainment level. Compare this number to Korea, where 60 percent of the population holds a higher education degree or certificate.

Community colleges have made college attainment a priority. At Ivy Tech in Indiana, the nation's largest singly-accredited community college system, we have launched the "Complete College Indiana," which focuses on the role we will play in increasing the state's current college attainment rate of 33 percent. Ivy Tech serves 47 percent of public higher education enrollment in the state.

We are focusing on a number of key areas, among them enrolling high school students in dual-credit programs with Ivy Tech and helping adults with dead end jobs or manufacturing skills that are now obsolete re-engineer themselves by going back to school.

To do this, we promote the fact that we have both day and evening courses six days a week, as well as online courses. We are also working closely with Indiana businesses to train their future workforce. While Indiana has lost manufacturing jobs, the manufacturing base is still strong, but requires a higher level skill set than the assembly lines of the past. Without skilled workers, these jobs will be outsourced overseas.

Other community colleges around the country have responded to the President's challenge with innovative programs. Northeast Alabama Community College has imitated the PASS program (Pathway for Achieving Student Success) designed to increase completion rates in their nursing program. Students enrolled in the two year nursing program take seminars on test-taking skills, study skills, time management and learning styles. Student progress is monitored throughout the nursing program. The faculty became involved in addressing the educational and psychosocial needs of the students. This very hands-on approach resulted in a retention rate that increased to 71 percent in 2011 from 28 percent in 2009.

Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, began its "Success First" program to help low-income, first-time, full-time, first-generation students. These students comprise 40 percent of the school's enrollment. Recognizing that these students may not be well-prepared for college level work, the college instituted a course that enabled them to adjust to a college environment with tips for reading, studying, note-taking, test-taking, and time management. Daily tutoring is available. Something as simple as providing lunch and textbooks allows students to focus on studying rather than worrying about how to pay for essentials. Students sign a contract at the beginning of the school year that indicates they understand what is required of them. One interesting outcome of "Success First" is that it creates a natural cohort of students who serve as a peer support group throughout their college career.

Community colleges need to be innovative because their students face many obstacles, among them the fact that many hold jobs or have family responsibilities. Virginia Community College System began the Shared Services Distance Learning to allow instructors to share their online courses with students from other partner colleges. More options mean that students experience less of a delay in getting the credits they need. Online education is not for everyone. However, it is an attractive option for community college students as it allows them the freedom of attending college without having to be on campus. The Virginia Community College System now offers 52 courses online.

Many high school students and adults need to stay in their community and don't have the option of packing up and moving to attend a four year residential college. The majority are from low-income backgrounds and many are African American or Hispanic. Community colleges are in the vanguard of serving these students.

We are also sending more students on to four year institutions. According to a 2012 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, graduation rates for students transferring after receiving an associate's degree are higher than for those who went directly to four year institutions. Close to 71 percent of these students earned a bachelor's degree within four years and nearly 80 percent either graduated or persisted at a four year institution.

Some may see the President's goal of America becoming the world leader in college education by 2020 as very ambitious. Community colleges know that the education they provide changes lives and will continue to develop programs that help students get a degree. We believe that the goal is attainable.