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Elevating the Critical Importance of Community Colleges

April 25, 2023

Dear ECMC Foundation Community,

Across the nation this month, we rightfully celebrated community colleges and brought light to the more than 4 million students they serve. These critical institutions are deserving of celebration and overdue for increased support from the public and private sectors. As April comes to an end, I invite us to continue our focus on community college students. At ECMC Foundation, our commitment to community colleges plays out throughout the year, buoyed by the reality that this sector of higher education serves as the sole gateway to postsecondary education for millions of students and their aspirations for economic mobility.

I have had the privilege to have worked alongside community college leaders, faculty and administrators throughout my career. With their open access, quality programming, workforce alignment and affordability, community colleges are the lifeblood of the communities that surround them and higher education, especially for students from underserved backgrounds. And yet, they often get short shrift―both financially and reputationally. Negative stereotypes associated with community colleges continue to surface within the broader higher education ethos, at the detriment of students. In recent years, some community colleges have removed the word “community” from their original name. I, however, advocate for embracing community as central to the work of public and private two-year institutions.

Community colleges are nimble, innovative and reform-centric; these are important characteristics of institutions positioned to serve an increasingly diverse nation and during a period when most new jobs will require a credential beyond high school. Take my home state of Texas, for example. Community college leaders there are advancing major reforms to the state’s funding model (created in 1973) that would embed student outcomes as the primary metrics for state funding. These metrics include favorable indexing for students from low-income families and who are not college ready. Since the first junior college was founded in 1901, the number of public two-year institutions across the nation has substantially grown. More than 65 million community college graduates live and work in the United States. As of Fall 2022, 4.5 million students were enrolled in community colleges nationally. I share these numbers to emphasize why leaders across all sectors―philanthropy, higher education, policy and business―must work together to improve what happens in community colleges. This acute attention is especially important as community colleges work to bounce back from the severe enrollment declines in recent years.

According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in 2022, community colleges have seen an increase in both persistence and retention, driven by higher transfer rates. ECMC Foundation is laser-focused on transfer efficacy through our Transfer and Credit Mobility Initiative. It is estimated that most students (80%) who enroll at two-year institutions intend to complete their bachelor’s degree. However, most of these students will not realize those dreams. We have much work ahead, and we’ll need universities to work alongside their community college partners to find solutions that benefit transfer students.

ECMC Foundation’s four other initiatives also support community colleges to help students successfully cross the finish line and secure a job in today’s labor market.

In my experience, community college leaders are quick to ensure their programs align to workforce demands, and this is particularly true for career and technical education (CTE). Our CTE Leadership Collaborative Initiative brings together CTE leaders to share innovations and resources to advance the field while meeting a serious need. Research shows that the quality and outcomes of CTE programs vary; research and awareness of best practices are limited; and leadership and professional development opportunities are uncommon.

As students seek postsecondary programs that will allow them to embark on successful careers, they also are grappling with tremendous challenges in the here and now. These challenges are particularly acute for community college students. Our Basic Needs Initiative aims to ensure food, housing, medical care (for physical and mental health needs), child care, transportation and technology are accessible for today’s students. The initiative supports both two- and four-year institutions across the nation.

Our initiatives also include two strategies that focus specifically on men of color and single mother students. Although 62% of men of color enroll in a community college after high school graduation, only 25% of men of color earn an associate degree within three years of their enrollment in community colleges. We see lower completion rates (12%) for single mother students, though both populations have high aspirations to complete their college degrees.

Our grantmaking and investing strategy embraces the totality of higher education, including community colleges, and ECMC Foundation has dedicated a significant proportion of our funding to community colleges, given the diverse populations they serve. Grantmaking through our new strategic framework is likewise trending toward these institutions. Already year-to-date, 73.2% of our core grantmaking dollars support community colleges and their students. This demonstrates continued momentum since a 2021 evaluation, which found that 57% of our core grants awarded from inception to January 31, 2021, focused on community colleges.

I’m proud to continue our legacy of supporting community college students. In the months and years ahead, I hope you will join me in thinking about how we can best support this sector through bold innovations that put students first.

In service to students and community,

Jacob Fraire
President, ECMC Foundation

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