Building A Better Community College of Philadelphia

Other cities with similar challenges report better student outcomes. Here’s how we can get our Community College mojo back

Building A Better Community College of Philadelphia

Other cities with similar challenges report better student outcomes. Here’s how we can get our Community College mojo back

What do we know about higher education? We know that schools attract young people and professionals and provide social mobility ladders for row home Philadelphia. We know that they are also business incubators for a knowledge economy.

We also know that higher education is reshaping the built environment. You see the transformation around Jefferson Medical School; the redefinition of a large section of West Philadelphia into a university district; Penn’s movement south along the river; the expansion of Temple’s two campuses in North Philly, and the anchoring of Broad Street by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of the Arts.

In short, we know that higher education is integral to Philadelphia’s economic success and growth. But in the coming years, as Drexel University moves east toward and beyond 30th street, we may witness an even more disruptive moment: the collision of downtown, university, and new business facilities. Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution refers to this as an innovation district: the integration of the office park, the downtown, and the college town into a new spatial and cultural form.

However you crunch the numbers, CCP does not measure in the top 30 or 40 percent of the country’s community colleges. Success rankings at CCP are somewhere in the middle of the 1,000 community colleges nationwide.

Which brings us to the Community College of Philadelphia. CCP runs a host of satellite campuses around the city and its main campus also contributes to a significant area of redevelopment just north of Vine Street.

It is also the most important college in the city for minority students, many of whom graduate from Philadelphia public schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, the last year for which there is reliable data, about 20 percent of the more than 7,000 students who graduated from public high schools in the city enrolled in the college.

If we want to maximize the value of colleges and research universities for business and job growth and for those that need it the most, the evidence is clear: We need a great community college. Yet community colleges like CCP are too often overlooked in local and state public policy discussions.

Talk to companies in the research triangle in North Carolina or in Silicon Valley; community colleges count!  They prepare young people and mid-career adults for careers, attract foreign talent, quickly adapt their curriculum to the demands of new technical skills, and manage flexible training partnerships with companies.

There are remarkable community college stories around the nation. Many of them are profiled by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, which recently began giving out a data-driven community college performance prize. The League for Innovation in the Community College also highlights the changing role of two-year colleges and agitates for change.

Community College of Philadelphia will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. But you will not find CCP on anyone’s list of outstanding community colleges. It is true that these lists are hard to compile and each use slightly different data to evaluate effectiveness. But there is enough data over a long enough period of time, to enable us to ask questions about what we have today, and to wonder what we need in the future.

First some context: If you wrote a book on transformative events in education and workforce training in the United States you would list the creation of the community college system right up there along with free public schools, the development of the land grant college system in the 19th century, and post World War II federal research dollars.  Collectively, they built 20th century American economic success.

Community colleges have many lineages (private and public) stretching back to a handful of 19th century junior colleges and technical institutions. The number gradually expanded throughout the 20th century but when the Truman Commission on Higher Education in 1947 called for a network of public community colleges, the movement caught fire.

The Truman Commission Report was an important call to arms regarding education and democratic values. It was also a critical civil rights document.

In the 1960’s, with baby boomer demand at its height, the two-year college system had its most prolific decade. Four hundred and fifty new two-year colleges were created, including the Community College of Philadelphia in 1965.

Today, more than 1,100 two-year public colleges in the United States educate close to half of the undergraduates in the nation.

Community colleges are meant to be flexible institutions. They have open admissions for high school graduates; they are comparatively inexpensive (President Obama is calling for a free system); and they are designed to rapidly shift curriculum to accommodate the changing needs of the economy.

Clayton Christensen, the great theorist of disruptive change, views community colleges as a disruptor to the conventional four-year college system.

Pennsylvania, with 14 schools, is a relatively limited community college state. Compare that to, say, North Carolina, whose work force training system is heavily integrated with its 58 community colleges. Or Kansas, with 25 community colleges, several of which are consistently ranked as leaders. In Pennsylvania, only tiny Thaddeus Stevens Technical Institute is regularly ranked in the top tier of community colleges.

If you listed the 10 largest colleges in Pennsylvania based on student attendance, four of them would be community colleges: Allegheny, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Montgomery County. In Philadelphia, Temple leads in total student enrollment with Drexel and CCP close behind. Penn is fourth.

The challenge for CCP is to be more like Kennedy-King College in Chicago. With a minority population of 94 percent, Kennedy-King has tripled its graduation rate. Like the best organizations anywhere, it collects and uses data to analyze progress and makes program adjustments as needed.

By sheer numbers CCP and its peers across the state are extremely important. But you will not hear much about community colleges during election time. They do not have a powerful constituency and voice.  Newspapers do not follow their success rankings when they come out, as they do with four-year colleges or professional schools.

Department of Education community college completion rates look at the percentage of full-time students that complete their degree within 3 years. Other completion rankings look at a six-year time frame or use data that includes those that transfer to four-year colleges prior to graduation and then complete their degree.

Aspen uses a variety of performance, improvement, and equity measures to identify the top 150 colleges every year and eventually narrows that list down to a winner that receives a $1 million prize.

Some rankings look at other issues besides completion rates including student aid, student-teacher ratio, and the learning environment.

Given the high turnover rate of community college students, many of whom attend school on a part-time basis or take classes for certifications not related to a two-year degree, the ranking of community college quality is a tough task.

Moreover, public community colleges have sometimes been evaluated unfairly against post high school proprietary schools that run programs with certifications that are shorter than a two-year associates degree.

But however you crunch the numbers, CCP does not measure in the top 30 or 40 percent, let alone the Aspen list of the top 10 percent. Success rankings at CCP are somewhere in the middle of the 1,000 community colleges.

More worrisome is the fact that for several years CCP has been on a warning list by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the college accreditation agency, for its inability to better assess student-learning outcomes. This tells us something about the culture that has built up over time at CCP, a culture that has been far too satisfied with getting by versus being effective.

Running a community college is difficult. There is not enough public money or student aid to do what is needed for the population that enrolls in the school.  Too many students do not enter with the preparation to succeed. And in some schools, such as CCP, labor contracts have limited the ability to adapt to changing economic realities, let alone get a better handle on student outcomes.

Still some schools do much better than others with the same resource and contractual constraints.

CCP has a new President, Dr. Donald Generals, who has a reputation as a change maker, some new and capable board members, and several outstanding programs. And many students continue to accomplish great things at CCP, often against difficult odds. With all of its issues, it is also a place of great inspiration.

CCP is starting to move in the right direction but it is too early to tell whether they can adopt the systemic changes needed to become a tier one community college.

First, they have to establish clear and measurable goals that target higher levels of completion and achievement.

Second, they have to create a culture of excellence and accountability for reaching those goals throughout the institution.

Third, they have to do a better job of targeting support and advisory programs for those that need it, particularly early in their freshman year.

This is all possible. It is happening in other community colleges around the nation including cities with the same low-income profile among entry-level students. One of the great recent success stories is going on in Chicago at Kennedy-King College.

In recent years Kennedy-King, which has a minority population of 94 percent, has tripled its graduation rate by instituting more focused pathways to graduation and rigorous advisory systems where there is an emphasis on measuring progress. Like the best organizations, it collects and uses data to analyze progress and makes program adjustments as needed.

In 2015 Kennedy-King was one of the 10 Aspen Institute finalists. While it did not win the grand prize, it was named one of the three finalists with distinction.

That’s the challenge for Dr. Generals and the CCP team. Let’s see if they can use this example and others like it to accelerate the success we need in one of our most important institutions of higher learning.

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