President Obama recently asked community colleges across the nation to take on a central role in his economic policy by awarding 5 million new associate degrees over the next decade. Those familiar with community college data know this is a daunting task for the nation’s public two-year college system. America’s community colleges collectively award fewer than 800,000 associate degrees per year, so an increase of 5 million over the decade implies that the system will have to increase degree awards at a rate of 60% per year to meet the president’s goal. In order to meet the challenge, the nation’s community colleges will have to shift their focus from access to retention and ultimately graduation. Success at retention means understanding the diverse nature and needs of the entering freshman cohort at different institutions and organizing programs of study and services designed to bolster degree completion among entering students. It means ending the old organizational ethos of “look to your right, look to your left, one of you will be gone in a year.” It means developing an organizational culture and business strategy tied to the objective of retaining students to graduation. Our recent research has found that community colleges appear to enroll disproportionately large shares of students with disabilities. To meet the president’s challenge of increasing the number of associate degree awards, new organizational designs, programs and incentives are needed to increase retention and graduation of students with disabilities.
Fogg, N. P., & Harrington, P. W. (2009). From paternalism to self-advocacy: Obama’s community college strategy and students with disabilities. The New England Journal of Higher Education, 24(2), 12-16.