Skip to main content

The Future of Work: To Help Workers, Fix Our Community Colleges

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Fullerton College is the oldest community college in  continuous operation in California, having been established in 1913. (Photo: Robert J. Boser/Wikimedia Commons)

Fullerton College is the oldest community college in continuous operation in California, having been established in 1913. (Photo: Robert J. Boser/Wikimedia Commons)

"History is a race between education and catastrophe."
     —H.G. Wells

In the winter of 2001, Richard Sance, then six, arrived in Brooklyn from Haiti with his father and six-month-old brother. They moved in with family, 12 to 15 in a two-bedroom apartment. Although Richard spent his afternoons looking after his brother while his parents worked, he graduated in good standing from public high school in 2013. Yet he lacked academic direction and college looked intimidating. A counselor pointed him to newly opened Guttman Community College, and Richard liked the structured course programs, strong advising, and supportive peer environment. He enrolled, focused on human services, and, with the support of peers and professors, balanced school, internships, and jobs. Richard recently graduated and will soon enroll at Hunter College.

Josh Lewis is the founder of Salmon River Capital. He engages with the education sector as an investor, board member, philanthropist, and parent.


There are countless Richards among the more than 10 million students in American community colleges. And among those 1,200 colleges, dozens, like Guttman, perform admirably. But the majority generate poor outcomes and a significant minority produce deplorable results—even as we demand that a system built for yesterday's students serve today's very different constituents, more effectively and at lower cost. Rejuvenating this critical educational infrastructure offers perhaps the single greatest opportunity to improve the workforce and the lot of the American worker.

Community colleges, which have been called the Ellis Island of American higher education, serve just under half of all undergraduates in the United States. Most are from the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum: if you're an undergraduate of color or are poor or the first generation in your family to go to college you're probably in a community college. You likely work, often full time, and may well have dependents. And you've typically not been successfully served by the K12 system: more than 60 percent enter college deficient in reading, writing, or math. In some schools this tops 80 percent.

Students look to community college as a bridge, to economic viability and social enfranchisement. They seek either training for a good job or a springboard to a four-year school and the wage premium a bachelor's degree commands. Failure typically means life on the margins.

Our nation also looks to community colleges as a bridge, to train the workforce necessary to a competitive economy, to reduce poverty and crime, to deliver educational opportunity and thereby social mobility, and to help build a more inclusive, equitable society.

But that bridge badly needs re-building. Community college credits often go unrecognized by four-year schools and employers often ignore their graduates as unqualified. Less than 40 percent of community college students get a credential within six years. The average three-year graduation rate is about 30 percent. In some colleges it's in the single digits. And outcomes correlate with socioeconomic status, so the melting pot is not much stirred.

Expanding broad access to education beyond the elites, before other nations did, helped drive America's ascendance. Designed to provide low-cost access to higher education for large numbers, community colleges played their part. But access without success is really neither. Low completion rates mean their costs per quality outcome are higher than for any other undergraduate sector, in part because after grants and tax credits the taxpayer actually pays the average full-time student to attend community college. We spend almost $4 billion on first-year, full-time students who drop out. Halving the dropout rate would, it's estimated, produce 160,000 incremental graduates who would earn $30 billion more in lifetime income and create an additional $5.3 billion in taxes. The human costs, tallied in personal setback to those aspiring to surmount challenging circumstances, are arguably greater.

Community college reform began in earnest in 2000 when outcomes data first came to light. More recently, the Obama Administration put it at the center of its education agenda. Some initiatives in this relatively young project have shown promise, yet few have been scaled. Outcomes remain disappointing and trends frustrating.

Yet this is an optimistic moment, as two developments offer hope we are entering a promising phase in community college reform. First, the vanguard of reformers believe they now understand the keys to strong performance. Pointing out that reform efforts have focused primarily on the on-ramps—the intake process, remediation, tutoring and support services such as child care—without touching the bridge itself, they've proposed some radical new blueprints. They abandon the outdated idea that learners are best served in a commuter version of an elite four-year school. In place of little to no guidance and a wide range of course options, a combination that sets the typical student up for failure, they provide assessments that identify interests (e.g., health care, business, technology) and counseling that clarifies educational and career goals, then a guided pathway of study supported by intensive monitoring and counseling. Courses that weren't coherently connected and often ran at hours difficult for working adults are packaged into sequenced programs and scheduled for the learner's convenience. Students are ideally grouped into cohorts that begin and end a course of study together, which educators (and diet clinics) have long known to have vital supportive effects. Faculty are supported in new ways, and their role changes, which can create resistance. Colleges integrate with both the K-12 schools that are their pipeline, and with the employers and four-year schools to which they are meant to be a pipeline—links too few schools have built. And, crucially, colleges are compensated on enrollments and outcomes—because failure should beget change.

These blueprints are difficult to implement in an era of declining public support and in a sector renowned for resisting change, particularly when its self-identity is challenged. But pioneering schools are providing compelling proof. City Colleges of Chicago, five years into an unprecedented transformation, is demonstrating that a large, spectacularly failed urban system can be made to succeed. Guttman, which was built on the new blueprints, boasts a three-year graduation rate just under 50 percent, ahead of aspirations. Lake Area Technical Institute, a tiny college in tiny Watertown, South Dakota, graduates 76 percent in three years, among the highest in the sector.

The second reason for optimism is atmospheric. Community colleges have long been the dark matter of the education sector, everywhere but unseen. Expected to turn academically underprepared and socioeconomically disadvantaged aspirants, on the cheap, into productive full citizens, they stand separate and unequal. They're largely irrelevant to the lives of the elites; their constituents have little political power; they rarely feature in national education reform debates or come up in cocktail party conversation.

Yet profound forces, including America's education and skills gap in a global knowledge economy, stagnant productivity and social mobility, great demographic changes, and the rise of non-traditional learners and tuitions, are bringing the problems and promise of community colleges into the light. And, when we stop to look, we find a system that could contribute so much more—if only we held it to far higher standards and resourced it accordingly.

Richard Sance aspires to a bachelor's degree in human services and a job with New York City's Administration for Children's Services. He wants to care for the next generation of children. We'd do well to be inspired by his example.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.