Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

The Missing Link to Scaled Excellence and Equity in Community College Student Outcomes: A National Leadership Development Strategy


Over the last two decades, our nation’s community colleges have received increasing recognition, and for good reason. They educate close to 40% of American undergraduates — nearly 6 million students. Community college students are more likely to be Black, Hispanic, and from lower-income backgrounds than four-year students. Because community colleges educate the fastest growing segments of our society, their success will go a long way toward determining the extent to which our nation and its people thrive.

Josh WynerJosh WynerThe good news: community colleges across the country have been diligently working to increase graduation rates, which have improved by nine percentage points over a decade. The bad news: graduation rates remain under 50%, and many students who do graduate are not set up for success. Less than 20% of community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and far too many earn workforce credentials that result in low-wage work.

While efforts are aplenty to help community colleges adopt discrete strategies that research shows to be effective, not enough is being done to find and develop leaders who can ensure that needed institution-wide change is implemented. Why should new reform efforts focus on leadership? From 12 years of research on high-performing community colleges — much of it through the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence — clearly colleges that achieve high, equitable, and improving levels of student success have presidents who prioritize improving student outcomes, have a clear and bold plan for doing so, and have the commitment and ability to lead lasting change.

In 2015, Aspen and Achieving the Dream published (in Crisis and Opportunity) the five qualities of exceptional presidents, including a deep commitment to student success, the willingness to take significant risks, and the capacity to develop external partnerships that strengthen student outcomes along with the abilities to create lasting change and acquire resources for student success. Aspen subsequently began two intensive fellowships that select senior administrators with the qualities of exceptional presidents and teach lessons from the field about how to achieve exceptional and equitable levels of student success. Experience with those fellowships has led to several observations that could inform others seeking to increase the number of community college leaders who can accomplish scaled, systems-level change:

Only some administrators have the qualities of exceptional presidents: While many apply to Aspen’s community college leadership programs, only some applicants have the perspective and capacity to lead scaled improvements in student success. Among the challenges: Too many are overly focused on enrollment, defining access as the single most important priority of community colleges, and too few are prepared to develop the kind of bold, prioritized reform agenda to advance student success at scale. Aspen’s field work suggests that presidents who lead large-scale improvements in student outcomes measure their college’s success by whether students complete degrees that have value after graduation, and they ensure that their college develops clear plans to achieve that goal.

Many diverse leaders are untapped: Today, 31% of community college presidents are people of color, and 44% are women. Given the observation that not all administrators can become exceptional presidents, we must cast a wider net if our nation is to develop the talented and transformational leaders needed to dramatically improve student outcomes. Aspen has achieved more diversity in its fellowship programs by recruiting diverse candidates and selecting those with the five qualities listed above. Of our 329 fellowship alumni, 49% are leaders of color and 63% are women.

The demand for high-quality leadership training outstrips supply: Over the past seven years, Aspen has pushed to do as much as possible, developing 156 presidents through our fellowships. Yet, we cannot keep up with demand. Requests from alumni to run sessions for senior teams and boards and from state systems to develop leaders at multiple levels make clear that the field is hungry for professional development that builds the capacity of presidents, vice presidents, mid-level leaders, and boards of trustees to lead student success reform.

More state higher education systems should train boards on how to hire excellent presidents and how to partner with them to improve student outcomes and close equity gaps. Those same systems, and higher education associations, need to increase professional development for the new generation of community college presidents and board members, focusing much more on building their capacity to lead reform. Universities need to reorient doctoral programs, teaching less theory and technical skills and more about how to lead scaled student success reforms. Even the federal government should get in the leadership development game, challenging and supporting states to develop a new generation of highly effective, diverse presidents. 

A national leadership development strategy matters. Low completion and transfer rates, along with many students graduating into low-paying jobs, are a drag on economic mobility; they prevent our country from developing the diverse talent needed for economic growth, democratic engagement, and the invention of solutions to societal problems. The consequences of not acting are serious. The promise of doing so is immense.   

Josh Wyner is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers