Cassius O. Johnson, Program Officer, New School Designs for K-16 Pathways

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Cassius O. Johnson is the former International President of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, which recognizes and encourages scholarship and leadership among two-year college students, and a current Trustee of the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation. Here he shares his views on the role of community colleges in providing post-secondary education for all students, citing "Bridging the Higher Education Divide," a report from The Century Foundation released on May 23, 2013. The report looks at the growing racial and socioeconomic stratification in the community college system and offers suggestions for improving educational outcomes. Michele Cahill, Carnegie Corporation Vice President, National Program, and Program Director, Urban Education, served on the Task Force responsible for the report.

The Century Foundation report “Bridging the Higher Education Divide” is an important response to the growing consensus throughout the nation that a postsecondary credential is essential to success in today’s labor market.  Yet, far too many adults do not have the postsecondary certificate or degree that signals to employers that they possess the knowledge and skills that are in demand. That deficit starts much earlier than adulthood.  It begins in our nation’s K-12 system as students are graduating not prepared for postsecondary success.  Luckily, the state-led effort called the Common Core State Standards holds the potential of dramatically changing that dynamic.

As noted in the report, for millions of Americans like myself, the pursuit of a postsecondary credential started at one of the nation’s 1,132 community colleges.  This is especially true for students of color.  Half of all undergraduates of color are educated in community colleges.  Since the first community college was established in 1901 in Joliet, Illinois, these institutions’ open access and strong ties to the needs of local communities have made them into what I call an all-American institution. Community colleges are best positioned to deliver the key to success and progress in today’s labor market—a postsecondary credential. As people where displaced in the last downturn in the economy, they turned to the community college to help reskill them for the higher skilled jobs of the new labor market.  As such, it is our nation’s community colleges that will play the prominent role towards meeting President Obama’s goal of returning the United States to first in the world in the number of our citizens with a postsecondary credential.  It is projected that community colleges will need to produce 5 million of the 8 million new degrees required to meet that goal.

Being well positioned is not sufficient.  Naturally, these growing demands create new institutional and systemic challenges that require community colleges to move beyond a tradition of open access to a bold new outcomes-driven vision of ensuring that dramatically more students, especially low-income and under-represented populations, persist and complete their education with a credential that has value in the labor market or transfers to a four-year institution with ease. 

I write about community college from personal experience. In 1995 I was a thriving high school senior, elected as the first black student body president of my high school in Hamilton, Alabama. After graduating, I made the decision to attend Bevill State Community College in my home town because of location and cost. Despite seemingly strong academic performance in high school, I was surprised to learn that my placement exam showed I needed to take Math 080—developmental math. That was not the freshman year in college that I had anticipated.  I made it through, but saw so many of my peers who got stuck in development coursework. Many of them “stopped-out,” returning to school after periodic stints in service-oriented jobs that helped pay the bills. Many others simply dropped out because life circumstances did not allow for the time or money to delay finding employment, even low wage work.

The Century Foundation report makes eight recommendations aimed at increasing innovation in accountability, funding, and governance.  These recommendations are worthy of consideration and stand to fuel the ongoing conversation about how to reimagine and transform this all-American institution. 

See the full Century Foundation report:

Read more about Carnegie Corporation investments in improving institutional practices through Statway, created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which increase motivation, tenacity, and skills for success among community college students: