Report highlights community college progress, need to address issues to improve system

Researchers highlight developmental education, improved pathways to careers as key opportunities for improving completion, career placement

Boston – Massachusetts community colleges can celebrate extensive progress over the past 18 months, but key opportunities for strengthening the community college system and better serving students remain if the Commonwealth is to meet its goal of creating a leading system, according to a new report commissioned by the Boston Foundation and released today.

The report, Stepping Up for Community Colleges: Building on the Momentum to Improve Student Success in Massachusetts by Richard Kazis and Lara Couturier of Jobs for the Future, notes the remarkable efforts to put community colleges front-and-center in the state’s higher education agenda, especially since early 2012, when Gov. Deval Patrick underscored the need to improve community colleges in his State of the Commonwealth address.

But the research cites four major areas for potential improvement if the state is going to become a national leader in community colleges and attract key jobs and industries. The report was presented this morning at an Understanding Boston Forum at the Boston Foundation.

“This report comes after a year in which all of us who care about community colleges should celebrate our remarkable progress,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “But we all know there is more work ahead. We are both gratified by the progress and encouraged by the new relationships between business, civic and community college leaders – who now must combine efforts to raise the outcomes for low-income and underprepared students who are seeking to improve their skills and, ultimately, their prospects for success
in today’s economy.”

Progress in reform, but room to improve

The researchers trace the recent reform agenda in Massachusetts for more credential completion, smoother transfer and a greater contribution from community colleges to the state’s economic well-being back to 2007, when the state signed on to Achieving the Dream, a national reform effort focused on student success in community colleges. Other highlights included the appointment of Richard Freeland as Commissioner of Higher Education, the state’s creation of Mass Transfer to help student navigate between two- and four-year colleges, the establishment of the Vision Project as a framework for reform, and the community colleges’ success securing a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

But reform efforts have accelerated in the past two years. The Case FOR Community Colleges, was commissioned by the Boston Foundation and released in November 2011. The report called for action to better position community colleges to address present and future workforce development needs in the state. Governor Patrick highlighted the skills mismatch in his 2012 State of the Commonwealth address. A statewide Coalition FOR Community Colleges was formed, with members from business and civic organizations advocating for a stronger system.

In 2012, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill to improve the colleges, strengthen integration of the system and introduce a new funding formula that establishes performance-based funding opportunities.

With those pieces now in place, the system has a chance to improve its results, which sit in the middle of the pack on most key community college measures, including funding, developmental education and outcomes for an increasingly diverse and at-risk student population.

An emerging national consensus

Researchers Kazis and Couturier also examined the research informing a developing set of consensus opinions about strategies that may lend themselves to improvements in outcomes for community college students.

That research finds key opportunities in the area of developmental education – at a time when 65 percent of entering community college students are placed in remedial courses in math of English. A growing body of national research raises serious concerns over the effectiveness of traditional developmental education and the accuracy of high-stakes assessment tests in identifying those who truly need remediation. It also finds issues with pilot programs’ ability to scale up, and notes that both students’ ability to begin earning credits and their ability to enter a program of study quickly improve their likelihood of completion.

The researchers then highlight a number of case studies of successful strategies that address these challenges from across the country, including:

  • The Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County, which puts developmental education students in introductory-level courses and companion courses designed to give them needed support.
  • The New Mathways Project at the University of Texas-Austin, which is redesigning the college math sequence to provide accelerated developmental math and introductory courses targeted to specific fields of study.
  • Long Beach City College in California, which has developed a more holistic assessment program using high school transcripts and grades rather than high-stakes assessments to place students in developmental education courses.
  • The North Carolina Community College System, which is developing a hierarchy of measures to assist in determining which entering students should take placement tests.
  • Miami Dade College, which is building structured pathways across its eight-campus systems by reviewing and streamlining its intake, placement, curriculum development and advising programs, among others, to ensure a more cohesive experience for all students.
  • The City University of New York, whose Accelerated Study in Associate Programs provide wraparound services to support students to move through their developmental and Associate’s Degree program in timelines that increase their likelihood of completion.

Strategies for Massachusetts

Those cases lead into the researchers’ recommendations for the future of community college reform in Massachusetts, which include:

1. Fully and effectively implement two high-leverage reforms initiated in 2012— performance-based funding and developmental education redesign.

The FY 2013 General Appropriations Act tasked the Commissioner of the Department of Higher Education with developing a funding formula for the state’s community colleges that is based in part upon institutional performance. The proposed formula provides a base funding allocation coupled with funds based on course completion and performance relative to defined success metrics. That formula must be approved by the Legislature.

The researchers also recommend a bold plan to redesign developmental math and English to reduce the number of students placed in developmental courses and accelerate their completion, through a combination of improved assessment and support for those students who truly need remedial coursework.

2. Expand access to structured pathways to credentials and reduce the complexity of navigating program and course options.

Among the opportunities – the authors recommend providing more information about completion requirements and job placements for programs of study, incentives for students who more quickly begin their route to completion, clearer transfer pathways and shorter-term stackable career and technical credentials with clear links to needed jobs.

3. Identify and remove barriers to innovation and pursuit of the completion agenda.

A full and careful review of policies and legal frameworks for community colleges will be a necessary part of providing incentives for students and institutions to pursue innovative academic opportunities. The report notes, for example, that state public law prohibits any state spending on summer sessions or evening classes, and requires that tuition for courses taught by full-time faculty be remitted to the state. These policies create disincentives for schools to offer courses at the times and with the instructors that might be best suited for students.

4. Support sustained advocacy for community college student success.

Recent reforms and discussions of community colleges have led to the establishment of new voices with an interest in the success of community colleges and their students. Continuing these opportunities for both cross-campus and independent voice to advocate for the needs of the community colleges will play a key role in their ability to meet the high standards now set for the system.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of more than $800 million.  In 2012, the Foundation and its donors made $88 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of close to $60 million. The Foundation is a partner in philanthropy, with some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes.  The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener and sponsor of special initiatives that address the region’s most pressing challenges.  The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), an operating unit of the Foundation, offers special consulting services to philanthropists.  Through its services and its work to advance the broader field of strategic philanthropy, TPI has influenced billions of dollars of giving worldwide. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit or call 617-338-1700.