Like many in the community college system in the US, Wise Allen feels that he is in a bind. The federal government expects him to improve the 30 per cent graduation rate at the colleges he oversees, but money is tight.
"It is impossible unless you put a lot of resources into individual tutorials and remediation work and we are starved to death in terms of dollars...We are turning away students as we speak," explains Allen, the interim chancellor of the Peralta Community College District, which serves Berkeley and Oakland residents in California's San Francisco Bay Area.
The four community colleges that Allen oversees are part of a network of around 1,200 community colleges across the US. Collectively they enrol around 13 million students, generally in two-year programmes; funding is provided largely at state level, with the federal government administering need-based grants to low-income students.
The institutions have generally done brilliantly on issues of access, but are now being told they must do more to ensure that the students who start their programmes successfully complete their studies.
Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, are somewhat analogous to further education colleges in the UK and the Republic of Ireland; however, unlike their counterparts across the Atlantic, they are a fully integrated part of the higher education system.
Each state has its own system of community colleges, so it is hard to generalise about their primary functions, but their focus tends to be more on remedial and vocational education, as well as the preparation of students for transfer to study at university level.
It is common for US students to complete a two-year associate degree at a community college before transferring to four-year higher education institutions to complete a bachelor's degree. Community college students make up more than 45 per cent of all US undergraduates.
The community college sector is a cornerstone of the US higher education dream. With average annual tuition and associated fees around $5,000 (£3,100) a year - less than half of those at public and one-tenth of those at private four-year universities - community colleges are markedly cheaper to attend than four-year institutions. Equally significantly, they have open admissions policies. Applicants need only a high school diploma (and at some institutions not even that) and placement tests are administered to determine what, if any, level of remedial education is required.
Naturally, they have large constituencies of low-income, part-time, ethnic minority and first-generation college students; in 2006, 29 per cent of their students had household incomes of less than $20,000, and community colleges enrolled 47 and 55 per cent of African-American and Hispanic undergraduates, respectively. Echoing discussion in the UK about FE colleges offering foundation degrees, there is growing debate in the US about community colleges' mission expansion as some colleges begin to offer four-year degrees (see box, below).
Barack Obama and his administration have been keen to raise the profile of these institutions, which the US president has called the "unsung heroes" of the national education system for their work in boosting knowledge and skills in an ailing economy. In October 2010, he held a White House summit to discuss their role. Obama has also set them an ambitious 10-year goal - to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020, the equivalent of an approximate 50 per cent increase over projections based on current graduation rates.
Obama's statements touched a nerve, because graduation rates at community colleges are woeful. Simply too many students drop out. Remedial education - whose resources are overstretched because of the number of educationally under-prepared students - is considered by many to not be working; and the process by which students transfer to university-level study is not always smooth.
Although there is no agreed measure for completion rates, one recent review by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Challenges and opportunities for improving community college student success", published in the Review of Educational Research in September 2010, highlighted results from a long-running US Department of Education longitudinal study. This indicates that on average only 16 per cent of US community college students had completed a certificate or a two-year associate degree, or transferred to a university, after three years of study. This figure increased to 36 per cent over six years.
Data are also gathered under the 1990 Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act. This puts current average three-year graduation rates for community college students at 30 per cent. The data also highlight big differences between states, with the lowest rate in Maryland (12.1 per cent) and the highest in South Dakota (64.4 per cent). Institutions with a greater number of students and a lower per-student spend on instruction had lower graduation rates, as did colleges with high proportions of part-time, ethnic minority and female students. By contrast, more than half of students who enrol in full-time study for a four-year bachelor's degree programme graduate within six years.
To help meet the 2020 goal, President Obama proposed both a $12 billion American Graduation Initiative targeted at improving completion rates and a $2 billion package in workforce training. But while the latter has materialised, the former has been abandoned and when - if at all - it might resurface remains unknown.
"We have embraced the challenge and want to do what we can, but we are not optimistic that we can increase our completion rates by 50 per cent without more support," says George Boggs, former head of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). "I don't see anything on the horizon federally because of the concern about the deficit."
Many community colleges are scrambling to get the resources they need to support their student influx, leaving little time to address low completion rates. In the midst of recession, states have either cut or frozen their education budgets at the same time as the system has been besieged by waves of job-seekers looking to improve their skills and high-school students whose cash-strapped parents need a cheaper option.
Enrolment on associate degree courses is estimated to have increased by 16.9 per cent to 8 million between 2007 and 2009. Thousands more have been turned away because colleges have been forced to reduce the number of classes they offer. In the last academic year in California, whose community college system saw a budget cut of 8 per cent across the board, an estimated 140,000 students missed out on community college places because of lack of capacity.
California's reliance on community colleges is particularly pronounced, with the system's students accounting for more than 75 per cent of post-secondary enrolments in the state in 2008. Nancy Shulock, executive director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento, has examined completion rates in the state and how to improve them. Findings in her most recent report for the institute, Divided we Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California's Community Colleges, published in October 2010, roughly tallies with the results from the US Department of Education study. She found that six years after enrolling, only 30 per cent of students had completed a certificate, an associate degree or transferred to a university to do a bachelor's degree course, and her report also highlights far lower rates in ethnic minority groups.
Completion rates are "a huge national problem", Shulock says. "You have got wonderful anecdotal success stories of people who went to community colleges, and the institutions themselves are still highly regarded, but when you look at the statistics and you aggregate it all up there is not enough for this country to get where it needs to go."
Shulock does not blame the institutions for low completion rates. They have been doing extremely well at "exactly what they have been asked to do" for decades, she says, which is providing access to higher education to people who would not otherwise have it.
"But our nation is realising that we have got a more serious problem than access right now and that is college attainment," Shulock says.
What is desperately needed, she argues, is a more effective range of policies designed to help students finish.
Institutions need to change in order to focus more on completion. Shulock agrees that community colleges need more money, but believes that there are improvements that can be made using the resources available. For example, every college should set goals for improving their graduation rates, and significant milestones that will help students reach graduation, such as completing English and maths courses.
A particular problem, she explains, is that there is little fiscal incentive for any of this. Shulock recommends that California's state legislature should follow the lead of Ohio and Washington state and adopt a new model of funding that rewards colleges for helping students progress through milestones, rather than paying community colleges simply based on the number of students they enrol.
Philanthropic organisations are also jumping on board. The Obama administration did not come up with the idea that community colleges need to focus on completion, says Thomas Bailey, who directs the Community College Research Center at the Teachers College at Columbia University, but it did "take a trend that was clearly there and raise its profile".
At the White House summit, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced its own $35 million Completion by Design project, intended to help community colleges in nine states discover where students are getting lost and propose initiatives to help them succeed.
A $1 million prize for a community college that delivers exceptional results in student completion rates was also launched by the Aspen Institute and others. Complete College America, a non-profit body that focuses "solely on dramatically increasing the nation's college completion rate" was established in 2009 by a number of high-profile philanthropic organisations. It has been gaining momentum, with 24 states now signed up to its agenda.
There are also moves to improve the recording of student success, probably the most significant of which is the federal government's new Committee on Measures of Student Success, spearheaded by Bailey. The idea, he explains, is to come up with a reporting framework that would lead to more accurate reporting of completion rates and perhaps expand the data gathered to include, for example, intermediate measures of success.
To this end, Shulock's report details measures that would improve students' chances of completing, such as encouraging students to attend college full-time at least initially (which she acknowledges is "easier said than done"), enrolling continuously without taking any semesters off, passing English and maths courses early on and taking a "college success" course. Just getting this information out to students, she notes, would be a vast improvement over standard current practice.
But she also suggests that colleges need to think about a larger plan to simplify course structures. Her report notes a new trend - a strong increase in the number of community college students switching to for-profit institutions. She believes part of the attraction is that they simplify the college experience for relatively educationally unsophisticated and unprepared students. Instead of throwing all manner of options and electives at them, as community colleges do, the non-profits simply cut through the uncertainty and tell students what they need to do.
"The community college movement that started in the 1960s was all about choices, chances, opportunities and unlimited possibilities...(but) that is not working for this (student) population. They are saying 'don't give me all these choices'," she says.
In a quest to improve success rates, many sector observers argue that remedial education must be redesigned. Almost two-thirds of community college students need to take at least one remediation course and many simply drop out at this first hurdle, explains Bailey.
Like Shulock, he raises a taboo subject, questioning whether associate degree programmes in which students require remediation are necessarily the best option for all students. It might be better, they hint, to focus students more on career-orientated education via short-term occupational courses aimed at equipping them for the job market rather than on eventual transfer to a four-year degree. The suggestion is controversial, however; channelling students in any way that could shut them out of the degree path is something few people in the sector want.
Meanwhile for Allen, completions and access make unwelcome bedfellows in the Peralta system. Colleges could raise their success rate if they were selective, but then they would not be helping the population they have been designed to serve, he points out.
"You get what you pay for," he says. "You can squeeze so much out (of limited funding) and I think that the community colleges have already met that limit, frankly."
Divided opinions: Issues of cost and mission hotly debated
A marked trend for US community colleges in recent years has been to offer, with the permission and encouragement of the states in which they are located, select four-year degrees.
To date, more than 10 states have passed the necessary legislation and the number is likely to increase, says George Boggs, former head of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Leading the way is Florida, which has authorised its community colleges to offer degrees in fields such as teaching because its universities cannot produce enough graduates to meet the state's requirements.
Community colleges are less expensive for both students and the state. But there is an advantage for those seeking to increase graduation rates as well. Negotiating the transfer to universities has been difficult for many students, and the cost of completing degrees at a four-year institution remains prohibitive. Many who start their studies at a community college prefer to complete their four-year degrees without having to switch institutions.
But even within the community college arena, four-year degrees are a heated issue, says Boggs, who notes that the AACC has members on both sides of the debate and he therefore takes no position. The concern, he explains, is that if community colleges start offering bachelor's degrees they could easily lose their own distinct mission.
There is also intense debate about the cost of undertaking four-year degrees at community colleges rather than universities. While no one doubts it is cheaper for students to study for such qualifications at community colleges, is it more cost-effective for the states who fund them?
Richard Romano is director of the Institute for Community College Research at Broome Community College, Binghamton, NY, and research associate at Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute.
In a recent working paper for the latter institute, "Using the community college to control college costs: How much cheaper is it?" Romano argues, contrary to received wisdom, that sending students to community college can be more expensive for the state.
The key is in the first two years, he says. With bigger classes, universities can teach the first two years more cheaply, resulting in average savings of $1,600 per student per year against the cost at community colleges. Drop-out rates are also lower.
The last two years of a four-year course, Romano acknowledges, are more expensive for any institution to execute and could well be "a stretch too far" for under-funded community colleges.
In addition, it is too soon to determine the level of academic strength and preparedness of those institutions' bachelor's degree students, he notes.