Long the neglected stepchildren of American higher education, community colleges have come front-and-center in the eyes of students, policymakers and philanthropists.
For students, that's because of the economy, which is boosting interest in two-year schools as a cheaper starting point for a bachelor's degree. They're also the place for job retraining, with unemployment at a 14-year high of 6.5 percent. A community colleges group estimates enrollment is up about 8 percent this fall.
Supporters of community colleges also hope to find an advocate in Jill Biden, wife of incoming vice president Joe Biden. She's a community college professor and wrote her doctoral dissertation on community college retention issues.
But perhaps more important is the unprecedented attention community colleges are attracting from a range of experts and organizations wrestling with some of education's most intractable problems — namely, low achievement for poor and minority students, and embarrassing college completion rates.
While the United States has one of the highest proportions of young adults enrolled in college, it lags behind a dozen or so rivals in the proportion who complete a degree.
Attention from the Gates Foundation
The new philanthropic attention was underscored last week when the giant Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would spend up to half a billion dollars over the next four years on a college completion initiative.
The goal is doubling the current proportion of about 25 percent of low-income people who earn a postsecondary credential. And it was notable that officials said the initial focus would be on two-year schools.
"More young people are enrolled in college this year than ever before," Melinda Gates said at the Seattle conference where the initiative was announced. "But the payoff doesn't come with enrolling in college; the payoff comes when a student gets a postsecondary degree that helps them get a job with a family wage."
Community colleges educate nearly half of American college students. But while they are engines of opportunity for millions, they're also a bottleneck.
A 2006 national commission on higher education reported one-third of whites obtain a bachelor's degree by age 25-29, but only 18 percent of blacks and 10 percent of Latinos.
Among college-qualified students — ones who meet any of five criteria, such as a GPA of 2.7 or combined SAT score of 820, suggesting they were qualified for college — 81 percent from high-income families complete a bachelor's degree, compared to just 36 percent from low-income families.
The Gates announcement represents the growing recognition that solutions to those problems will have to target community colleges, which educate a disproportionate share of the racial and ethnic groups that are falling behind. Fewer than half of community college students complete as associate's degree or successfully transfer.
Money spent on students who don't finish
Or as the Gates Foundation's Hilary Pennington told the conference in blunt financial terms: "More than half of all dollars spent on postsecondary education in this country is spent on students who never finish."
The Gates announcement follows several other prominent foundations, including Lumina, Kellogg and Ford, that have recently begun focusing on community colleges, said Carol Lincoln, the national director of Achieving the Dream, an initiative working with 84 institutions on localized, bottom-up programs to improve student success rates.
But the Gates initiative sends a big signal, not only because of the foundation's size — it had assets of $35.1 billion as of Oct. 1 — but also because Gates is known for rigorously researching its funding choices to determine where it can make the most difference.
"When people hear the Gates Foundation is considering investing in something it attracts attention," Lincoln said. "I think it's going to be a tremendous impact."
The Gates Foundation plans to begin announcing grants next month. Projects will include efforts to tilt the financial aid system to encourage degree completion and not just enrollment, and boosting remedial education.
The bad news is community colleges, at a time of acute demand, are likely to face sharp state funding cuts due to the economic downturn.
But outside the system they run on day-to-day, a critical mass of resources appears to be circling the same problem: what will it take to get more of the students who come to community colleges the credential they need?
"You're getting enough concentration on enough big ideas that they might be able to make a difference," Lincoln said.