James Kadamus, National education consultant for K-12 and higher education
I agree that the Obama administration has been promoting attendance at community colleges as a way of increasing access for students, providing more affordable options for college, creating a gateway to 4 year programs and linking education preparation to emerging workforce needs. These are all important education goals for individuals and for the economic well-being of the country.
That said, the elephant in the room with community colleges is the completion rate. The Chronicle of Higher Education has published results by state - http://collegecompletion.chronicle.com/
The data is shocking and points to some of the real issues community colleges must face up to if they want to be successful. Many people attend community colleges, but the completion rates are very low, The Chronicle analysis looks at what percentage of student complete in 150% time - essentially do they graduate with a 2 year degree in three years. States with large community college enrollments like Arizona, Texas and Ohio all have completion rates below 15%. Florida (30%), California (26%), and New York (21%) do a little better, but certainly not at an level that anyone would find acceptable. Even the best state - South Dakota just barely breaks the 50% completion rate mark.
If students are not graduating or are taking 3 or 4 or 5 years to graduate (likely because they are going part-time and are underprepared for college level work on day 1), the modest costs of community college add up. Also there is a loss of productivity to the economy if it is taking community college students getting technical preparation longer to get into the workforce and become productive workers and taxpayers.
Unless the completion rate issue is addressed, the vision for community colleges will not be realized. Proposals to make community college free will increase access, but may even attract more students who have a casual interest and end up making completion rates worse.
The bottom line is that to make community college fulfill the role that the President and many others want, we need students to be better prepared for college level work as they enter and to provide them with the support and help to progress and successfully get the knowledge and skills to get a degree.