Community colleges vital to U.S. competitiveness

By Terrence Leas

Last month, I summarized part of a compelling report from the College Board’s National Commission on Community Colleges, "Winning the Skills Race and Strengthening America’s Middle Class: An Action Agenda for Community Colleges." 

The report supports the key role community colleges must play to ensure America’s well-being in an increasingly competitive world economy and an increasingly diverse and changing society.

This month’s column reviews the commission’s call for a new three-way social contract involving national leaders, state officials and community college presidents — an agreement to put community colleges at the forefront of the effort to enhance American communities and ensure national competitiveness.

Implementing the commission’s vision requires that community college leaders commit to an evidence-based culture and a system designed around student success, while public leaders commit to making the investments required to implement that culture and secure the American future.


  • For the federal government: Pass the Community College Competitiveness Act of 2008, which calls for universal public education for two years beyond high school and requests resources for enhanced work-force development, financial aid, guidance and counseling.
  • For the states: Revise inadequate funding formulas, reinvigorate the transfer function in areas of critical national needs and create meaningful K–20 alignment.
  • For community colleges: Develop accountability metrics that better assess the unique and varied missions of these institutions, respond to national goals for associate and bachelor’s degree production, and recommit to the expectation of universal student access and success.
  • The future: Strengthening America with re-imagined Community Colleges

"Our reach may exceed our grasp … but the long-term goal should be universal student success."
Within this new vision, community colleges will:

  • Continue to be open-access, but strive to increase completion rates.
  • Continue to offer multiple educational options.
  • Establish new partnerships with local business communities.
  • Commit to a "culture of evidence."
  • Continually reflect on and improve their policies and practices.

Like beacons, American institutions of higher education throw off light in many directions. That light is reflected with special brilliance when it falls on America’s 1,200 community colleges and the students enrolled in these institutions — often the first in their families to complete secondary school or progress beyond it. Community colleges are the Ellis Island of American education — a safe harbor from which Americans from all backgrounds can reach their educational goals and the nation can sustain its leadership in the global marketplace of ideas and commerce."
Next month’s column will focus on how the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and Riverland Community College are implementing this new vision.

Leas is president of Riverland Community College. Send comments to

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