CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success

In recent years, Americans have awakened to the profound connection between community college student success and the strength of our nation. That community colleges matter deeply is clear from a few simple facts:

  • They educate over 7 million degree-seeking students, more than 40 percent of the U.S. college population.
  • They have in recent years been growing at four times the rate of four-year colleges.
  • They enroll a disproportionately large share of the rapidly expanding number of college students of color and first-generation students.

Today, though, not enough community college students succeed. This reality was boldly acknowledged in a recent report by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC): “What we find today are student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job market needs, and disconnects in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions.” 1

Focusing exclusively on the challenges facing the entire sector, however, obscures an important fact: Many community colleges have been engaged in difficult work on their campus to achieve improved rates of completion, higher levels of student learning and job preparedness, and more equitable outcomes for students of color and others who have historically been left behind in public education. The organizations that prepared this report, Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute, work with many institutions that are in fact demonstrably improving student success. 2

What we have learned through our work is that while strong leadership can be exercised by people throughout an institution, every high-performing community college has a first-rate president. The best leaders across the country have a special set of qualities and know-how that enable them to lead institutions to high and improving levels of student success.

This report presents a unified vision of who these leaders are and what they do, so that everyone involved in hiring and preparing community college presidents—trustees and leaders of state systems, universities, and associations—can consider the extent to which their assumptions and practices ensure that strong presidents are chosen and effectively trained to lead colleges in ways that meet the aspirations of every student as well as the critical goal of significantly improving student outcomes.

1 American Association of Community Colleges (2012). Reclaim­ing the American Dream. Available at: https://www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/21stcenturyreport/index.html.

2 These colleges have been recognized as winners and finalists with distinction in the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, have earned recognition as Achieving the Dream (ATD) Leader Colleges, or both.

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