Walter G. Bumphus
President and CEO, American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)
Daniel A. Domenech
Executive Director, AASA, The School Superintendents Association
The data are clear: The path to family-sustaining wages runs through higher education. But the transition between K-12 and college is full of barriers.
What we see often happening is that once a young person graduates from high school, they’re on their own. Then it’s up to higher education organizations to pick up where K-12 left off. There needs to be collaboration to clear the pathway.
In 2014, our associations — the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and AASA, The School Superintendents Association — joined to bring together K-12 superintendents and community college leaders. The discussion centered on the importance of partnering to remove barriers, and promote college readiness and student success. Successful collaborators highlighted programs that benefit students and their families, as well as local employers.
Why community colleges
At the K-12 level, there’s a lot of emphasis on kids graduating high school and going to college — college usually meaning a four-year institution as opposed to the community college. By doing that, we have in essence deprived 60 percent of our students with opportunities to realize much more rewarding goals for themselves.
What happens to those students who do not enter the four-year institutions? They wind up without the training and preparation that would have them ready for the thousands of jobs that we hear from the private sector that are available, but they don’t have the individuals trained for those jobs. Those jobs don’t require a four-year degree, but do require some amount of skill development that community colleges can provide.
Community colleges are accessible to all students and are the on-ramp to a better life. But access is not enough. By working collaboratively with K-12 partners, we can remove barriers to college attendance and completion. We must be intentional about finding ways to ensure students have a clear pathway from high school to community college and beyond. By allowing educational professionals to highlight their work so it can be replicated across the country, the AACC/AASA convening is one step toward that goal.
The conversation at that first convening proved that if ego and politics are set aside, real innovation can happen. But that was just the start. We’ve held many meetings since, each showcasing promising practices that have resulted in more seamless transitions between high school and college.
We’re now seeing institutions working together and developing a plan, not just to get students through high school, but to enhance the transition from high school to a community college. The K-12 and community college partners come as a team, ready to talk about their collaboration and their cooperation, and the great programs that are available as a result of that cooperation.
A focus on dual enrollment
More and more, conversations during the AACC/AASA meetings have centered on dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take college courses for credit. Dual enrollment programs have existed for decades — though sometimes called by other names — but have gotten more attention in recent years as college costs have risen. They expose students to college and career opportunities while providing no-cost or low-cost opportunities to earn college credit.
Simply put, dual enrollment programs give students options. They can continue at a community college or enroll in a four-year institution. Some will head straight into the workforce, earning a decent wage because they’ve gotten those extra skills employers are looking for.
Many dual enrollment programs that involve community colleges focus on career and technical education (CTE).
In Texas, a collaboration between El Paso Community College (EPCC) and the Socorro Independent School District has grown to serve thousands of students. By 2015, there were 6,800 students in dual-credit programs.
There are several models in El Paso, meaning some students take dual-enrollment courses at their high school while others are bused to the college where they attend classes with college students. Dual-credit students have free tuition if they take classes within their degree path, while the school district covers the cost of textbooks and transportation.
Students complete that program with an associate degree and a diploma, many of them as high school juniors.
There also have been steps taken to educate the educators. High school teachers who lead dual-enrollment classes attend professional development sessions at EPCC.
Thanks to technology – and creativity – many of these dual enrollment programs can continue during the pandemic.
There are challenges, of course. Funding for dual enrollment programs varies. Showcasing the value of CTE programs, particularly in affluent areas, can be difficult, as can reaching underrepresented populations who might most benefit from dual enrollment. And there’s a need for continuing professional development for educators. However, through close collaboration — and honest discussions — K-12 and community college partners can find solutions that ensure success for all students.
It is critical that we continue to work together to increase student success in high school and college. If we can scale programs and services that are working, we can further advance the nation’s students, and provide key skills and education to rebuild and strengthen the nation’s economy and workforce pipeline.