Stuck in the Middle: How Student Affairs in Community Colleges Can Manage the Completion Agenda

Thomas J. Bratton, Jr., M.T.S.
Western Carolina University

Needham Yancey Gulley, Ph.D.
Doctoral Student, Educational Leadership
Associate Professor, Higher Education Student Affairs
Western Carolina University

Community colleges, with their mission of open access, serve the diverse demographics of their geographic communities, many of whom have been historically marginalized. Because of this open access mission, community colleges must promote student success for those who need it most (Heelan & Mellow, 2017). In promoting a more just and equitable society, community colleges have the opportunity and responsibility to model how institutions can influence change for greater social justice (Heelan & Mellow, 2017). Through modeling just and equitable programs and services, community colleges can shape other institutional systems within their communities as well as the attitudes and values of their students. Central to these endeavors are student affairs professionals who support student and institutional outcomes.

In the community college setting, the task of student affairs departments is to collaborate with other departments, including academic affairs, as well as the community, to achieve the shared mission of the institution.  At their most basic, student affairs units focus on recruitment, admission, registration, engagement, support, and retention (Latz, Ozaki, Royer, & Hornak, 2017). Because community colleges welcome all, the students who enroll come with a variety of hopes and needs. Student affairs departments must meet these students in their unique situations, with their unique personalities, and help them navigate the systems necessary to achieve their goals (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker, 2014).

Unfortunately, this is not easy to accomplish, as there have been and continue to be structural, systemic, and financial barriers to the desire of community colleges and, specifically, student affairs units to support students’ unique goals and the creation of more equitable spaces within the communities they serve (Latz et al., 2017). Some of these barriers have been intentional and some have arguably come in the form of unintended outcomes of seemingly positive public policy, for example, the completion agenda. The college completion agenda has placed community colleges in the forefront of the policy movement which emphasizes college completion as a main tenant. This policy places additional stress on community colleges to increase the rate at which their students’ complete degrees, which on the surface is a goal with which many can agree but may harbor unintended consequences that also hinder the low-income, minority, first-generation, and adult student groups community colleges serve (Gill & Harrison, 2018; Latz et al., 2017) . The agenda, which has led to funding being tied to completion rates, is also embedded with the assumption that the only reason a student would attend community college is with a goal of completion (Harbour, 2018).

Who Community Colleges Serve

Community colleges are an integral part of the higher education system in the United States. There are over 1,000 community colleges across the country in all 50 states and they enrolled 12.2 million students in 2017 (AACC, 2017a). The vast number of enrolled students means that many who attend college currently have their beginnings in a community college environment. Community colleges are critically different than their four-year counterparts in a variety of ways, including who they serve, their mission, their curricular offerings, and their place in national policy.

Currently there are a total of 1,108 community colleges, 982 of which are public institutions producing 806,766 associate degrees and 516, 820 certificates in the 2014-2015 academic year (AACC, 2017a).  Community colleges are still diverse in their curricular offerings including transfer education, vocational education, and adult education. In 2014-2015, 47 percent of the associate degrees awarded were in career and technical education (AACC, 2017b). Also. between 2000 and 2014, the number of certificates awarded at community colleges increased by 236 percent (AACC, 2016). The diversity of programming and the number of students who begin their education at a community college show the impact that community colleges have on American higher education.

Given community colleges’ unique organizational structure, it is no surprise that low-income students would take advantage of the lower tuition, flexibility to accommodate working students, and open access policies of local two-year colleges. Cross (1971) stated, “the majority of students entering open-door community colleges come from the lower half of the high school classes, academically and socioeconomically” (p.7). Socioeconomic status of dependent students attending two-year colleges tends to be lower than those attending four-year institutions. In 2003-2004, 26 percent of community college students as compared to only 20 percent of four-year college students came from the lowest income level (Horn, Nevill, & Griffith, 2006). Currently 58 percent of students attending community colleges receive financial aid and 35 percent of this aid is through Pell Grants, which are available for the lowest socioeconomic levels (AACC, 2017a).

Community colleges’ dedication to recruiting untapped and underserved segments of the population has given rise to the growth in enrollment of ethnic and racial minorities. In 2010, students of color represented 42 percent of all community college enrollments nationwide (Cohen et al., 2014) and currently encompass 52 percent of the total student population that is enrolled for credit (AACC, 2017a). When this data is disaggregated by ethnic groups, the level of impact community colleges have on these groups becomes more clear. Of all undergraduate students, community colleges enroll 56 percent of all Native Americans (1.3 percent of the US population), 52 percent of all Hispanic students (17.8 percent of the total US population), 43 percent of all Black students (13.3 percent of the US population), and 40 percent of all Asian/Pacific Islanders (5.9 percent of the total US population) (AACC, 2017a; US Census Bureau, 2016).

Much has been written about whether community colleges have aided these populations in progressing through higher education or if they have hindered their progress for access and completion (Bailey, Jenkins, & Leinbach, 2005; Bragg, 2001; Jalomo, 2002; Philibert, Allen, & Elleven, 2008). Those who say community college has aided these groups point to minimal entrance requirements, ease of access, and low tuition as proof that community colleges provide entrance into higher education that would otherwise be lost on these populations. Critics argue that students who begin their education at a community college are less likely to complete their educational aspirations than those who enter four-year institutions.

Completion Agenda

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama set a national goal, “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” (White House Press Office, 2009).  This broad-based initiative has spurred the development of new policies that push degree completion and tie institutional performance to degree attainment. In order to meet the college completion objective, many foundations have put forth goals to obtain these numbers. The Lumina Foundation for Education (2009) is pushing to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2025 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has set similar goals (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, n.d.).

Community colleges heard this charge and in 2012 called to action their community partners. The Commission’s report, Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future (AACC, 2012), set a goal of increasing rates for completion of community college credentials by 50 percent by 2020, while preserving access, enhancing quality, and eradicating attainment gaps across groups of students. The report set forth seven major recommendations connected to attaining that goal: increase completion rates by 50 percent, dramatically improve college readiness, close the American skills gap, refocus and redefine the mission, provide collaborative support structures, participate in advocacy, and increase accountability.

Interviews with higher education leaders reveal that despite the admirable goals of the completion agenda, many believe the focus on completion has increased pressure on the community college system to produce a workforce and eroded the focus on holistic education for students (Cohen et al., 2014). In this way the completion agenda has altered the focus from open access and individual development to student completion as the singular measure of success. Prior to this agenda, student outcomes in these institutions could be more individualized, something lost in the demand to think about success in only one way (graduation). This is a major shift for community colleges who have, traditionally, been community and student focused. These changes have created a tension in community college practices, particularly for the developmental and justice-orientated efforts of student affairs professionals in those settings.

Caught in the Middle

Student affairs departments often experience market and entrepreneurial pressures that place the financial needs of the institution over the developmental needs of students. Lee and Helm (2013) refer to resource dependency as a move to align what the marketplace needs with what the community college provides. In the past, community colleges not only instructed students in academic matters, but also were given the responsibility for the moral and ethical development of students. That role has shifted to a more consumerist approach (efficient, effective, accountable) to help students compete in an increasingly global economy (Levin & Kater, 2013), which is a driving factor in the completion agenda (Harbour & Smith, 2015; Lee & Helm, 2013). But, this approach centers completion or graduation as the only measure of students’ success. This agenda, then, fails to acknowledge the myriad of other reasons that students might attend a community college or the inherent hardships with which students enter these institutions.

The values that support academic capitalism (i.e., revenue generation, commodification of programs, efficiency) can often be at odds with the values of student affairs professionals (access, affordability, collaboration, cooperation, diversity, justice, fellowship, service) (Lee & Helm, 2013). The desire for higher completion rates is grounded in the global economy, not in the desire for students to become better community members, neighbors, parents, or even co-workers (Harbour, 2018). Community colleges must not become trapped in accepting completion as the singular success measure, but instead must be intentional about developing students who will become good citizens who seek the betterment of the community in which they live (Kisker, Weintraub, & Newell, 2016), while allowing students to define their own goals and, thus, their own success measures.

Call and Response – Meeting Student Needs

Student affairs units in community colleges are well-situated to mitigate the demands of the completion agenda with the mission of community colleges as open access, community-focused institutions that value equity and students’ ability to define their own success. In the community college context, student affairs has a complex role, working with first generation, academically under-prepared, and transfer students. Student affairs professionals have an influential opportunity to embody principles of social justice that increase their abilities to address inequalities, focusing on pedagogy and process (Latz et al., 2017). Student developmental capacities are connected to students’ abilities and desires to persist in and meet their educational goals, whether those are to graduate or not. The community college structure and the student’s resilience play a vital role in creating a culture of success (Kuh, 2009). The role of the student affairs department could be framed as a “call and response” spiritual, in which the student expresses a statement of what matters and the institution responds with evidence that informs and encourages (Weber, 2017, p. 317). These “calls” are rooted in the desire to belong, to be safe, and to know that education is worth the time.

If students are to risk connecting with others in a new context, they must know that there are others like them there. Student affairs professionals can help them understand how other students in similar situations are achieving (Weber, 2017). Connecting these students to one another can create a sense of belonging and increase persistence.

Students also need to know that they can overcome their challenges and recognize their strengths, which can be aided by the help of student affairs professionals who know each student, find resources to help them succeed, and encourage them along their journey. Feeling secure is a key component of resiliency (Weber, 2017). Students know that finances, academic preparedness, and family responsibilities can make achieving their goals seem overwhelming. Helping alleviate these fears and focusing on strengths can lead students to  meet their goals.

Students hope for a better future that will result from the attainment of their educational goals. Students wonder if the time, money, and energy spent on their studies will result in a good return on their investment. Community colleges must respect the challenges being faced by students and remove barriers, as well as provide credentials that are valued in the community (Weber, 2017). Connecting students to internships, jobs, and other community engagement opportunities can inspire students to achieve a better future.


The completion agenda has increasingly focused on credentialing students so that they might be well-prepared to enter the workforce and compete in the global economy. This agenda centers the ability of colleges to set up the United States for economic prosperity but is less concerned with supporting developmental or economic outcomes for individual students and their families. These latter outcomes are the focus of community colleges, and those working in these institutions are currently being judged and rewarded (ie. funded) based on the national economic impact while working to stay true to institutional missions rooted in individual and community impact. The completion agenda has failed to recognize developmental and justice-oriented practices and outcomes associated with community college practice. Student affairs professionals in community colleges have a unique opportunity to address the emotional, spiritual, and social needs of students to unlock their growth which can, in turn, lead to increased completion rates and national economic gain, if considered as a secondary (not primary) imperative. To do this, student affairs professionals must avoid deficit thinking and focus on the terrific strengths these students have that we can capitalize on in order to support student outcomes (Weber, 2017). Community colleges have an opportunity to promote a holistic understanding of student success, which can lead to greater rates of completion, contributions to a global economy, creation of better citizens who serve in their own communities, and advocacy for justice and equity in a divided world.


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