Office of Community College Research and Leadership

Our mission is to use research and evaluation methods to improve policies, programs, and practices to enhance community college education and transition to college for diverse learners at the state, national, and international levels.

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  • Reducing Time to Completion

    The Path to Accelerated Completion and Employment (PACE) consortium, which included all 22 community colleges in Arkansas, received a Round One TAACCCT grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to restructure certificate and degree programs to support and accelerate student completion in healthcare and manufacturing. Phillips Community College - University of Arkansas (PCCUA) was one of several community colleges that focused on healthcare.

    The team at PCCUA worked to redesign nursing programs, starting with the Associate Degree in Nursing. Amy Hudson, Dean of Allied Health, identified the TAACCCT grant as an important resource for their efforts to redesign curricula, reduce time to completion, and acquire important equipment. Dean Hudson and faculty also point to the valuable guidance and expertise provided to their team by Dr. Linda Caputi, Nursing Education Curriculum Design Expert. The college restructured the ADN program from 72 to 63 hours, and was also able to apply the redesign process to the Practical Nursing program to create more pathways for students.

    For more information on the PACE consortium and the innovations at PCCUA, see the brief: Transforming Nursing Programs to Reduce Time to Completion.

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  • Building Futures: Unlocking Inmate Opportunity through Postsecondary Engagement

    Over two million women and men are incarcerated in American jails. There is critical need for us to move from negligence to intentionality in fostering a pipeline to postsecondary and away from prisons.

    According to Kilgore (2015), one-quarter of the prison population worldwide resides in the United States penal system yet Americans only comprise five percent of the total world population. The majority of those serving time are overwhelmingly from underserved communities with large numbers of low-income, people of color disproportionately behind bars. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 2 of every 5 inmates are African American. Latinos account for 14% of the population, but 1 of every 5 inmates are Latino/a (Mauer & King, 2007; U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).

    The cost of maintaining the prison system to taxpayers is substantial. Each year over $80 billion dollars is spent on incarceration in the U.S. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2016). Seventy billion of taxpayer dollars fund state and federal prisons and states expend between $52-62 billion dollars on prison maintenance (Zoukis, 2014). Roughly 5% or fewer inmates enroll in prison postsecondary education programs; largely vocational certificate programs (Erisman & Contardo, 2005). Hence, more annual spending goes toward operating, maintaining, and building prison facilities than spending on basic/life skills education or academic courses beyond the high school diploma. Research has noted that postsecondary prison education positively affects the odds of employment following incarceration (Duwe & Clark, 2014; Langemann, 2015; Lockwood, Nally, Ho & Knutson, 2012). However, despite evidence that correctional educational reduces crime rates and recidivism, limited investment in correctional education and limited access to correctional education continue to be the norm (Bazos & Hausman, 2004; Davis, et al., 2013, 2014).  

    With growing inequities evident in the correctional system, it is imperative that college access reach all populations, including incarcerated individuals. Recent activities that focus on building this access and uplifting inmates are promising. In observance of National Reentry Week, April 24-30, 2016, the Bureau of Prisons as authorized by the Department of Justice hosted mentoring exchanges, family days, job fairs, educational forums, and a host of other events. As programming designed to help prepare inmates for release wrapped during National Reentry Week, the week of May 2nd was eventful with President Obama hosing a prison education reform meeting at the White House. In attendance for the prison reform conversation was University of Illinois Professor Dr. Rebecca Ginsburg who serves as Director of the Education Justice Project (EJP), which is a prison education program with collaboration between UIUC, Danville Area Community College, and Danville Correctional Center. Announced May 5, 2016 in his blog A Nation of Second Chances, the President shared his granting of 58 new clemencies and highlighted those who previously granted clemency that were able to self-actualize and maximize their commuted sentences.

    On May 9, 2016, U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) announced the release of Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals This publication is a guide for colleges and universities to reassess the necessity of prior involvement with the justice system in admissions decisions, encourage access and support services across student populations, and encourage the abandonment of unwarranted hurdles to prospective students irrespective of association with the department of corrections.

    If the U.S. is to have a productive and educated populace that is globally competitive in today’s diverse knowledge economy, then we must acknowledge the grave implications of a failure to extend college to the masses. Neglecting to broaden participation to prisoners in postsecondary programming can only serve to reproduce the cumulative disadvantaging of this population and dim the lights on how bright we could all shine because of not enacting practices that produce rich outcomes for inmates. Opportunities for access to postsecondary education and educational equity in general for incarcerated individuals are lacking. There is critical need for us to move from negligence to intentionality in fostering a pipeline to postsecondary and away from prisons. Community colleges are the sector of higher education that is uniquely situated at the intersection of postsecondary access and opportunity, and as such, uniquely situated to facilitate correctional education. Community colleges are also key in efforts to building educational equity necessary as part of the work of redirecting the pipeline to prison and building in its place a pipeline through education to opportunity.

    To read more on prison education and the role of community colleges in fostering access, see the Update on Research and Leadership FEATURE brief, Altering the Pipeline to Prison and Pathways to Postsecondary Education.


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  • Exploring the Real Price of College

    Would lowering the price of college support higher levels of college attainment for low-income students?

    The connection between the price of college and access to degrees is hard to overstate. For low-income populations the price can act as both a gatekeeper providing access to educational opportunity for students who would otherwise not be able to afford it and a critical support of low-income students’ efforts to reach their educational goals (Graham & McCambly, 2015). Financial aid is currently the main mechanism used to reduce the price of college. Two challenges faced by community colleges in regards to financial aid are that as many as 44% of their students do not (or cannot) complete a Free Application for Federal Students Aid (FAFSA) and as a result are ineligible for financial aid, and that of the students who do complete a FAFSA most are faced with high levels of unmet need (Choitz & Reimherr, 2013). Nearly all students within the lowest quartile of family income enrolled at community colleges in 2007-2008 were faced with an average unmet need that ranged from $3,349 for part-time dependent students to $10,181 for full-time independent students (Choitz & Reimherr, 2013). As community colleges look for ways to improve students’ outcomes, it is natural in light of the critical role of financial aid and the levels of unmet need faced by their students to ask, would more effectively lowering the price of college support higher levels of college attainment for low-income students? And perhaps to specifically ask, would expanding the level of Pell grants provided to low-income students—or even making community college free-- lead to improved program of study completion?

    This was the topic explored by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab in her recent presentation to an audience of scholars at the University of Illinois sponsored by The Forum on the Future of Public Education. During this presentation Goldrick-Rab shared how through the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, a six-year-long multi-method experimental study, her team of researchers strived to learn if increased financial aid led to improved academic outcomes for low-income students. As a result of what was learned through this study, Goldrick-Rab encouraged the scholars in the room to think systemically and critically about the issues of financial aid. Goldrick-Rab described the challenges faced by low-income students, including supporting families (including their parents, siblings, and children), holding multiple part-time jobs, working third shift, homelessness, hunger, and living in impoverished communities. Using a randomized experiment, she found that when private grants substantially reduced the price of college, as they did for university students in the study, on-time rates of bachelor’s degree completion rose. However, after three years the study showed no significant impact associated with the funds provided by the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars to community college students. This was despite that fact that over half of the students in the study dropped out of the study prior to earning a degree, most frequently because of the costs associated with college.

    While this finding might seem to contradict the students’ need for aid, Goldrick-Rab pointed out that there were many factors that minimized the potential impact of this new funding for community college students. Specifically, she illustrated how systemic issues within the financial aid system created barriers that have a disproportionate impact on low-income students. Key issues she highlighted about the financial aid system included the displacement of funding, where students’ net increase from the new funds was greatly decreased by the financial aid ceiling. The debt ceiling is based on tuition and fees, both of which are traditionally lower at community colleges.  However, as she noted, the overall financial aid package was also typically lower. Community college recipients of the grants faced high levels of unmet need, where on average they saw a reduction in their net costs from $9,800 to $8,000 per year.  In the cases where the grant funding reduced the amount of loans they students took out, Goldrick-Rab shared how they typically saw a reduction in the student’s subsidized loans and not their unsubsidized loans. Timing of financial aid also created barriers for low-income students.  Some students unfamiliar with the financial aid process lost financial aid because they completed the FAFSA process late in the cycle. Others received their financial aid packages so late that they had already missed key milestones in their coursework or had dropped out.

    Goldrick-Rab then provided a brief overview of some of the key points from her upcoming book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, that is scheduled to be released in September of this year. In this book she explores college affordability, expanding beyond the federal definition of the cost of attendance to a more holistic understanding of the real price of attending college. In her presentation she highlighted the increased spending on Pell grants and the decreased purchasing power of that investment.  She also highlighted the detrimental effects on low-income populations of reduced state support for higher education and rapid expansion of tuition costs. Goldrick-Rab concluded that higher education is increasingly unaffordable, not just for the growing population of low-income individuals, but also for middle-income individuals as well. USCPrice Sol Price Center for Social Innovation provides a short video of Goldrick-Rab describing her new book.

    Goldrick-Rab, who describes herself as a scholar-activist and educational optimist, is not comfortable simply conducting research and reporting it through scholarly channels. Instead she promotes the idea of using translational research.  In 2013, with funding from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, she launched the Wisconsin HOPE Lab with the goal of helping “policymakers and practitioners (a) accurately state the costs of attending college, (b) ensure that families and students understand these costs, and (c) find effective ways to cover these costs that enhance degree completion rates as well as the personal and societal benefit of postsecondary education” (Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 2016). Dr. Goldrick-Rab ended her presentation with an appeal to the audience advocating for an open discussion about the costs and benefits of universal college, which would lower the price of college without requiring students to apply for financial aid. She stated that in order to gain stable living-wage employment in this country, a college credential is necessary, and further that we are all served by a well-educated populace. Goldrick-Rab chose not to advocate for a specific model of universal college, instead inviting the audience to be part of that debate.  She has, however, previously published her views on universal college, one example of which is Redefining College Affordability: Securing America’s Future with a Free Two Year College Option, published in April 2014 by the Lumina Foundation.

    This begs the question. How can we make college affordable for everyone who is committed to getting a postsecondary education? Do you support universal college? If so, what model do you feel would have the most benefit? If not, what are your concerns about free college? Tell us what you think would lead to better educational equity for all, and what role you think we should take.

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  • Reflections Upon 2016 ILACEP Summit- Dual Credit Status, Collaboration, and Compliance in Illinois

    The inaugural conference of Illinois Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (ILACEP) – the Illinois State Chapter of NACEP took place on Friday April 22, 2016. It was an exciting, interactive event that brought together dual credit professionals at all levels, including high schools, community colleges, universities, Education for Employment Centers/Regional Programs, as well as state and national organizations around a shared mission of building high school-college partnerships that accelerate and diversify student pathways to postsecondary education.

    The meeting highlighted presentations and updates from the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Programs (NACEP), and the Ohio State Chapter of NACEP (OADEP), District 202, and ILACEP. OCCRL graduate research assistant John Lang and I presented the At the Crossroad of Access and Opportunity: Funding and Dual Credit Participation in Illinois, highlighting an exploratory study led by Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher that examined programs and policies relative to dual credit access, opportunity, and cost for underserved student populations in Illinois.

    In light of the current state budge crisis, there were concerns regarding the potential impact of the fiscal climate on dual credit programs across the state of Illinois. Ms. Whitney Hagy announced ICCB’s new rule that would only allow juniors and seniors to claim tuition reimbursement, so freshmen and sophomores who are academically qualified and who want to take dual credit courses will soon need to pay tuition. Shifts in who pays and how much it will cost to participate in dual credit are playing out in Illinois, meanwhile the state of Ohio is making dual credit free for all public school students in grades 7-12 and mandating all public colleges/universities and public school districts to offer dual credit. According to Mr. Tim Dorsey, President of OADEP, the statewide program called College Credit Plus allows dual credit students to bear no cost for tuition, books, or fees.

    The long-standing discussions around the issue of teacher credentialing were prominent at the ILACEP Summit. Mr. Dorsey shared Ohio’s $10 million dollar plan to help high school teachers earn appropriate credentials to teach dual credit (i.e., a master’s degree in the discipline taught or a master’s of any type and 18 graduate hours in the course subject area). Meanwhile, Illinois practitioners emphasized the need for institution-wide teacher support (e.g., flexible teaching/coaching schedule, make summer graduate courses available, etc.) that would allow teachers to pursue these educational opportunities. The bottom line: Policies that help to broaden dual credit participation and smooth the path to postsecondary education by underserved students in low-income communities must account for the entire early-college ecosystem, rather than solving one particular student challenge in a silo.

    Teacher incentives were discussed and considered one barrier to teacher credentialing and broadening student participation. Mr. Glenn Wood, Assistant Superintendent of District 202 and Ms. Gretchen Lohman from IBHE shared the P-20 Network Survey on dual credit that listed increased workload, no financial incentives, and financial cost of earning credentials as top three reasons of teacher barriers to meeting qualifications to teach general education dual credit courses. Moreover, when asked about what additional benefits teachers receive for teaching dual credit courses, half of the principals and teachers reported none.

    Evidently, there is room for improvement at both state and local levels. We are thrilled that so many enthusiastic, committed collaborators from across the state and region came together for a day of rich dialogue geared to accelerate postsecondary opportunities. I believe ILACEP, under the leadership of Dr. Dave Naze, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Prairie State College will build on this momentum moving forward as a state chapter that provides resources to its practitioners and help shape the concurrent enrollment policy that benefit the changing needs of students in Illinois.  

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  • Dr. Debra Bragg receives the Community College Baccalaureate Association Pioneer Award

    Dr. Debra Bragg, Gutgsell Endowed Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and founding director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL), was honored by the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA) with its annual Pioneer Award for her significant accomplishments and remarkable career devoted to improving access to postsecondary education.

    Mary Alice McCarthy, Senior policy Analyst at New America, presented the award, which recognized Dr. Bragg´s contributions to enhance the transition of youth and adults to college and careers and to improve access, equity and outcomes for students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students. Dr. Bragg has led research funded by federal, state, local government agencies as well studies funded by several foundations. Last year, she was also named an American Educational Research Association (AERA) Fellow.

    Dr. Bragg’s recognition took place during the 16th Annual International Conference of the CCBA held in Chicago, IL on March 18-19. Every year, the meeting brings together administrators and scholars in the U.S., including organizations in Australia and China, to learn from each others’ experiences about community college baccalaureate degrees.

    The CCBA Pioneer Award recognizes leaders who demonstrate the bravery and tenacity exhibited by early settlers in the United States, Canada, and many other countries and we could not agree more that Dr. Bragg’s career has been an outstanding example of such distinct virtues.

    Congratulations on a well-deserved recognition, Dr. Bragg!

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