Community colleges were designed to promote social justice by giving every student the opportunity to go to college — even if they didn't have enough money or the best grades. But now, they're facing increasing challenges as they intensify their efforts to help students succeed once they're on campus. 

"The emphasis on success is where all community colleges are headed," said Tracy D. Hall, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, Tenn. "It's just a different day, and we cannot continue to enroll students without regard to if they're going to be successful."  

Policymakers nationwide judge community colleges' performance the same way they judge four-year colleges: by how many students complete degree programs. Yet the open access DNA of community colleges means that students often come from high-poverty situations and need up to three semesters of remedial education before they can even start college classes. 

The definition of student success has been challenging to pin down in general, but is even more so for community colleges. Some students go to community colleges to take a few courses that help them advance in their current job or learn a new skill that they can use on the side  — not to earn a degree. And other students require remediation, so any progress that allows them to take college classes for credit is a huge step.  

"We should not give any impression that we don't want to be held accountable for what we do," said Shah Ardalan, president of Lone Star College–University Park in Houston. "In contrast, we do want to be held accountable, but again the measures should be fair and applicable to what we do." He suggests that community colleges should be measured by whether students achieve the goals they set out to accomplish, not just how many of them earned certificates or degrees. 

Along with the definition of student success, poverty poses a major problem that affects students' ability to do their best work in college. If their lights go out, they can't read their textbooks. If their car breaks down, they can't get to their classes. And if something happens to a family member, they can't stay in school.

While community colleges aren't social service institutions, they can no longer get away with saying it's not their job to help students deal with these issues, Hall said. They need to do what it takes to deal with poverty and social issues that affect students' abilities to succeed, whether it means partnering with community organizations that work with students on campus or setting aside money to provide services.

To deal with some of these challenges to student success, Tennessee started a co-requisite model for all of its community colleges. In this model, students who test low on reading or math can enroll in a remedial course at the same time as a college-level class. This model encourages students by helping them earn college credit right away as they receive extra support.

In Texas, 3,000 students in a pilot course learn essential college skills including how to study, manage their time and pick a career path. This gateway course takes them through ECPS, a software tool developed at Lone Star College–University Park to help students make better decisions about what career they want to shoot for and how they can reach their goal.

As a result of this pilot, retention increased, students changed majors less often and more of them stuck with the course. In fact, 82 percent of the University Park students re-enrolled in courses in spring 2015 — a retention rate three percentage points higher than the Houston Community College System average. 

Along with community college efforts, major organizations are working together on guided learning pathways, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Aspen Institute, Achieving the Dream, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This extra support will help community colleges build up leaders for the next generation.

"It is imperative that we make sure we have a very skilled and educated workforce so the emphasis on success makes sense," Hall said, "because if we want strong communities, we need strong people."