New initiative seeks to boost value of community college degrees

Low-income, first-generation, and marginalized students are the most likely to win big with this six-year initiative that seeks to maximize a community college degree's earning potential.

From 2023 through 2028, ten community colleges across the nation will have the opportunity to participate in a program that will boost their reputations in a big way.

Unlocking Opportunity: The Post-Graduation Success and Equity Network will be working with schools across Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and more to re-tool their programs conducive to valuable degrees. The Aspen Institute, in partnership with the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teacher College, Columbia University, leads the initiative.

“The Unlocking Opportunity initiative will provide Laramie County Community College an amazing opportunity to access world-class resources, benchmark ourselves with the very best institutions, and evaluate the work we are doing to prepare our students for the workforce and continuing their pursuit of advanced degrees,” said college president Joe Schaffer, whose school was selected.

Both Shaeffer and Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program, emphasized how this initiative would positively impact first-generation, low-income, and minority students, who are historically the least likely to enroll in programs that result in strong outcomes, according to an Unlocking Opportunity press release.

“It is time for community colleges to turn their attention to increasing the value of the credentials they deliver, especially for the large numbers of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students who rely so heavily on community colleges to provide a path to a better life,” said Wyner.

A community college degree that carries significant weight into the workforce or better leverages students’ applications applying to universities promotes equity across the socioeconomic spectrum, which aligns with the missions of the Aspen Institute and CCRC.

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In the first three years of Unlocking Opportunity, the Aspen Insitute and CCRC will be intensely involved with community colleges providing them with cutting-edge resources to set concrete goals, plan reform strategies, and implement changes.

The initiative will also equip advisers with data-driven insight to better guide students on their future, even capable of breaking the data down by race, gender, and ethnicity. Using labor market data from various sources, CCRC and the Aspen Institute will help community colleges categorize enrollment figures to discern how many of their students are enrolling in programs that are aligned with high-wage occupations. For students looking to use a community college degree to enroll in university, data can be categorized to show pre-major transfer programs that are most likely to help students get accepted.

For the next three years, the Aspen Institute and CCRC will be hands-off, tracking the effectiveness of the changes community colleges made and using that data to inform how they guide higher education leaders in the future.

“We’re excited to work with these colleges to help them evaluate and strengthen their programs and see which lead to great outcomes: either good jobs right away or via completion of a bachelor’s degree,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center. “This requires intensive work, and I cannot imagine a better group of institutions from which we can learn and share lessons with the field on how to deliver excellent and equitable programs.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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