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Community College Month: ‘We Focus on Removing Barriers to Success’

Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO, American Association of Community Colleges
April is Community College Month, an annual opportunity to get the word out about why community colleges matter. To celebrate, ACT asked Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and a member of the ACT Board of Directors to share his thoughts on how community colleges can maintain and enhance their distinct service to students and communities and help ensure the pandemic disruption does not derail longtime efforts to improve education and workforce equity and success.

Community colleges exist to make a higher education that would be unattainable for many students accessible to all students, simultaneously driving socioeconomic mobility and economic, workforce, and community development for the regions they serve. How has the pandemic affected the way institutions consider or approach this mission?

The pandemic was, in many ways, a catalyst for change. But, before I talk about that, I want to be sure to note what did not change – and that is the commitment to the mission of access. Community colleges remained ardently committed to providing access to education opportunities during the pandemic and in its aftermath.

What was astounding to witness in real time was the pivot to an array of learning modalities that would provide minimal disruptions for students. All hands on deck were required to ensure that curriculum, technology, and human resources were in place. For our thousands of career and technical education programs – many of which are high-tech or high-touch – it required extraordinary levels of coordination within the college and the community to ensure that critical workforce pipelines remained viable while students and faculty remained safe. Health care programs are a prime example, but community colleges also provide education for infrastructure jobs such as electrical linemen, supply chain logistics, commercial drivers, and many others. Community colleges found ways to continue these classes – through online education, simulators, and artificial intelligence, to name a few examples – to ensure that the local workforce pipeline remained as solvent as possible.

Amid a strong job market, degree inflation, and more competition from regional public and for-profit universities, fewer students are choosing community college. How are these shifting enrollment patterns affecting your colleges, and what are the implications for our country and communities?

The data shows that community college enrollments have fallen, and the implications are top of mind for leaders across the sector.

While it is impossible to pinpoint any one reason for the decline, we know that for many students, community colleges are the on-ramp to economic mobility and the middle class. We know that students of color have been disproportionately affected, which means that we will continue to see the gaps widen among Black and brown students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. As we look at the shifting population, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will only get worse.

We all know that an educated citizenry is better for the community. Education means higher earning potential and fewer social services needed. However, many of our colleges are funded on a per-student basis, so lower enrollment means lower funding and fewer services to help students complete a pathway through higher education.

As we continue to see the effects of the pandemic play out, we know there are other troubling patterns, as well. For example, the share of two-year students who successfully go on to get a bachelor’s degree has shrunk almost 15% since the pandemic began in 2020. How can community colleges and their collaborators ensure that students who still want to pursue a two- or four-year degree have the supports to successfully do so?

We are working toward finding and creating ways in which to smooth the transfer process for our students.

We know that community college students fare very well upon transferring and we need to ensure that they are able to do so. Particularly in rural areas, we are working to establish partnerships between the community colleges and universities to create seamless transfer pathways and to then replicate and scale them across the country.

Community colleges are known for serving the students with the fewest resources and the greatest obstacles, with less funding than their four-year counterparts. What are the unique challenges your students are facing, and how are institutions working to better recognize and address them?

Community colleges do far more than provide education. In many cases, they address basic human needs. They provide food, housing, transportation, medical care, and so much more. Students can’t focus on education if they are hungry or can’t get to campus.

Serving those without access to broadband internet or computers is also something community colleges do. Our colleges have worked tirelessly to address these issues – working with funders and providers to ensure that students have access to laptops and the internet.

Community colleges work to serve the whole student and not just provide higher education – we focus on removing barriers to success.

Half of all Hispanic and 40% of all Black students in higher education are enrolled at community colleges. Community colleges were designed for equity from their very beginning, but how is that purpose coming to the forefront amid the trends we’re discussing?

Equity is a core tenant of the community college mission. In fact, equity and accessibility are the foundation of community college.

Recently, AACC looked at the equity measures and the student success initiatives that were underway and found that we had to focus equally on success for all students. For us, it is a moral imperative that success be truly achievable for all students. And, while that is a great soundbite, it is a daunting challenge on campus. At community colleges across the country, leaders are looking at their outcomes and resources and determining how to better serve students in obtaining their goals. They are implementing programs and services, observing outcomes, and using strategies to improve. They are doing so in spite of funding shortfalls, politics, and other barriers.

We hear and amplify these strategies across the country so that colleges can use known models and adapt them to fill their attainment gaps. The work is far from done, but I am incredibly proud of the strides that our colleges are taking to ensure that every student has the opportunity to find success.

Dr. Walter G. Bumphus is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). He previously served as a professor in the Community College Leadership Program and as chair of the Department of Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin, holding the A. M. Aikin Regents Endowed Chair in Junior and Community College Education Leadership.