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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

Letter From CCRC Director Thomas Brock

Photo of CCRC Director Thomas Brock

Dear Colleague,

As you know, Thomas Bailey, the founding director of CCRC, assumed the role of Teachers College president on July 1. Under Dr. Bailey’s leadership, CCRC became known as a trusted source of knowledge on community colleges and strategies to help them improve. After serving as research commissioner at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) for the last five and a half years, I became CCRC’s new director on September 1. I’m looking forward to advancing CCRC’s research agenda—and as I take on this role, I’d like to share a little about our current work and invite your opinion about the major issues and questions we should explore in the future.

Community colleges are committed to the idea that higher education should be available and affordable to all who seek it, and they largely deliver on this promise. Nationally, community colleges enroll more than a third of all undergraduates, including disproportionate numbers of low-income students, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and students from racial and ethnic groups that are historically underrepresented on college campuses.

Unfortunately, access to higher education does not always translate into academic success. The majority of students who enroll in community colleges are deemed underprepared for college-level coursework in at least one subject area and are assigned to developmental education. Fewer than 40 percent of part-time and full-time students enrolling in community colleges earn a credential from any two- or four-year institution within six years. And while there are modest economic benefits associated with accumulating some college credits (and with earning certificates), a recent study by Thomas Bailey and Clive Belfield at CCRC concluded that completing an associate degree is what brings a big payoff from attending community college: $4,640–$7,160 per annum in additional earnings, compared with students who enter community college but do not finish.

CCRC’s mission is to help policymakers and practitioners find and adopt strategies that help more students succeed in reaching their college and career goals. For example, we are investigating a variety of strategies to increase college readiness, including high-school-to-college transition courses, dual enrollment programs, and reforms to better align developmental education courses with students’ academic and career goals and to help them master basic skills more quickly.

We are also working with states and institutions to implement strategies to support students’ progression and completion of college degrees. This work focuses largely on the guided pathways reform approach—which CCRC has been instrumental in developing—that aims to ensure that every student has an individualized plan with an academic and employment goal in mind, and receives the instruction and advising needed to realize that plan.

Finally, we are studying ways to strengthen career and workforce education in community colleges. The Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment—an IES-funded partnership led by CCRC—examined the economic returns to occupational certificates and other kinds of credentials in order to inform policy and help students choose a course of study. CCRC researchers are currently exploring strategies to engage employers in the better alignment between labor market skill demands and workforce curricula and training.

Higher education is constantly evolving, and CCRC’s work will evolve as well. As we look to the future, we will identify priorities that build on our expertise and push us in new directions. For example:

  • Effective teaching lies at the heart of a good college experience, but there has been relatively little research on what transpires inside most community college classrooms. How can we best measure teaching and learning at the classroom level? How can we help instructors refine their teaching practice to better support student success?
  • CCRC has long been involved in the reform of advising, and the guided pathways model is predicated on the notion that every student requires strong academic advising to get on and stay on track. Yet community colleges have limited resources to spend. How can predictive analytics, early-warning systems, and other technology-based solutions improve the timing and delivery of academic advising? How can community colleges intervene with students whose economic or personal needs go beyond academic advising?
  • There is growing alarm over the rising costs of college and rising student debt. To what extent are institutional reforms such as guided pathways successful in creating efficiencies and lowering the cost of completion for students? What do we know about student borrowing at community colleges, and are there better ways to structure loans to help students complete their degrees and manage repayment?

A fundamental issue that cuts across all of our research topics is equity. Why are there such persistent achievement gaps among students from different economic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, and what can policymakers and practitioners do to achieve better education, employment, and life outcomes for all students?

CCRC has a strong foundation to build upon and much important work to do. If you have suggestions or feedback concerning our research, we want to hear from you. One lesson we have learned is that the best ideas and innovations come from the field. You can contact us at ccrc@columbia.edu.

Sincerely,

Thomas Brock

Thomas Brock
Director

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