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Posted at 02:46 PM ET, 04/25/2011

The unfortunate $1 million community college contest

There is little, it seems, that the Obama administration won’t turn into a contest for cash, at least when it comes to public education. Now it has helped kick off a new competition, pitting community colleges against each other for $1 million.

(It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about the administration’s contest for high schools to compete for the honor of having the president deliver the 2011 commencement address. Oh wait. It was yesterday.)

Today, the administration, together with the nonprofit Aspen Institute, the lead sponsor, announced the start of contest in which selected community colleges across the country will engage in a four-phase, eight-month-long process to demonstrate that their students:

(1) gain knowledge and skills

(2) complete degree or certificate programs

(3) obtain jobs with competitive wages.

How do they demonstrate this?

With data, of course. If something is worth doing in education today, it has to have data with it.

Here are the various phases of the contest:

Phase 1: Evaluation of Public Data

Phase 2: Collection of New Data

Phase 3: Qualitative Data and Expert Judgment

Phase 4: Post-Award Knowledge-Sharing

The purpose of the prize, according to the Aspen Institute’s Web site, is “to honor excellence, stimulate innovation, and clearly define what success looks like for community colleges” (as if “success” can be clearly defined for all schools).

The idea, it says, is to “shine a spotlight on community colleges that deliver exceptional results.”

If the idea is to focus attention on community colleges, well, $1 million probably isn’t going to garner too much. Americans got bored a long time ago with a television show where people could win $1 million just for answering a bunch of trivia questions.

The Aspen Institute seems sensitive to the notion that a contest with a big prize attached can be transformative. On its Web site is a discussion of why the prize is worthwhile, and it lists other competitions that it says have extended impact, though at least one of them is debatable and all of them beg the huge question of how the United States is really going to reach its education and social goals.

Contests and fund-raisers can be fun and they can come with the most honorable of motivations.

But they should never be a substitute for strong, smart policy that provides resources and commitment and attention where they are needed and that does not rely on corporations or nonprofits with agendas for inspiration or cash.

In fact, the administration’s largest education competition, the K-12 Race to the Top, which pitted states against each other for federal funding that was awarded on the basis of applications promising specific reforms, has led, in my opinion, to ill-advised policy, in part because states rushed to please the Education Department rather than carefully think through the consequences of their actions.

There is no question that community colleges have a vital role in the higher education of Americans, young and old, and their importance has long been overlooked.

The country’s 1,200 community colleges are the largest and fastest-growing segment of America’s higher education system. Their students represent more than 40 percent of all U.S. undergraduates. But they face a range of problems, including state funding cuts at a time of record enrollment — so high that some schools had to turn away applicants — and very high dropout rates.

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, who participated in Monday’s announcement, is a long-time community college professor who has brought welcome attention to the world in which she has devoted her professional life.

She has played a valuable role in shining the spotlight on these institutions, hosting the first-ever White House community college summit last year and supporting the administration’s plans to spend billions of dollars over a period of years to help these schools increase their low graduation rates.

A review of a quarter of a century of research, called “Challenges and Opportunities for Improving Community College Student Success,” published last year, discusses the graduation rates and includes a discussion of 14 of the most popular and well-evaluated practices in use at community colleges, including learning communities, dual enrollment and incentive programs, and financial aid reforms.

New ideas are, of course, always welcome, and best practices that emerge as a result of the Aspen Prize could certainly be helpful. Or they could tell people what they already know.

Ultimately, what community colleges really need across the board are resources. And that requires smart state and federal policy, not another contest.

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By  |  02:46 PM ET, 04/25/2011

 
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