As worries over Americans' workforce skills persist, community colleges have reemerged as a potential solution. The country's 1,132 community colleges—two-year, not-for-profit public colleges—are designed to provide lower-income students with an entryway into traditional four-year colleges, as well as offer career training.
Politicians from both parties have spoken highly of America's community college sector. Bill Clinton declared: "If community colleges had yet to be invented, there would be a mad rush to do so today." Ronald Reagan referred to community colleges as "a priceless treasure." Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush both requested more funding for community college students. More recently, President Obama proposed making the first two years of community college free for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and make good progress in obtaining their degrees.
Despite such high' praise, the sector suffers from serious flaws. While more accessible to lower-income and minority students than traditional higher-education institutions, community colleges experience the lowest graduation rates and highest student-loan default rates of any higher-ed sector. In recent years, among two-year colleges, only community colleges have experienced a decline in graduation rates, too.
Absent widespread improvement of outcomes, America's community colleges might not offer students a bargain—even if tuition were free. To make community college a worthwhile investment, the sector should learn from the small number of successful schools that employ intensive counseling to help students graduate quickly. The sector should also emulate schools in the for-profit college sector that keep students engaged by offering relevant course work and internship opportunities.
To incentivize change, policymakers should reward community colleges that adopt these proven strategies; policymakers should also hold community colleges more accountable for student outcomes by rewarding high-performing schools and disciplining low-performing schools. In addition, policymakers should enact changes to America's student-aid program to encourage students to graduate on time. Collectively, such reforms can better maximize the sector's unmet promise.