President Barack Obama answers audience questions at Ivy Tech Community College, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, in Indianapolis. Obama was promoting his budget proposal to make two years of community college free. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This is the first in a regular series of columns about the nation’s community colleges from Jay Mathews, a longtime Washington Post education reporter, columnist and author. The columns will appear on The Post’s Grade Point blog.

My favorite new book is former Congressman Barney Frank’s “Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage.” It is an entertaining — and unsettling — story of inequality in America, in the guise of an autobiography. I am particularly taken with his ending, where he identifies one educational institution as the key to keeping our nation from being permanently split in two.

Frank asked a two-part question: Has inequality gone beyond what is healthy for the economy, and if so, what can we do about it? Two very different former chairs of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan and Benjamin Bernanke, gave amazingly similar answers: Inequality is excessive and a key solution would be increased access to community college.


Retired U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is now teaching a government class at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. (Photo by Josh Reynolds For The Washington Post)

I read this shortly after Washington Post education editor Josh White asked me to write a series of columns on community colleges: What do they do right, what do they do wrong, how can they be strengthened to realize all the hopes we have placed in them? Community colleges serve a huge group of people, with about 7.4 million students — 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates — attending 1,132 community colleges nationwide.

[Column: Extending community college would help 20-somethings emerging into adulthood.]

My first conclusion, after reviewing data compiled by several researchers, is that community colleges at the moment are pretty much a mess. They get far too few of their students on the road to good jobs or four-year college degrees. Many of their classes are poorly taught. Many of their programs are poorly organized. Even their best efforts are poorly funded.

President Obama drew much favorable comment earlier this year with his plan to eliminate tuition for community colleges so more students could have a chance at higher education. This would, in essence, add a 13th and 14th grade to the free public education system.

But the educators I have interviewed think that will do little good. The problem isn’t tuition. It’s guidance and teaching. Students are turned off not by the cost of community college but by the frustrating entrance standards and classes that do not take them in the directions they want to go. They are given little assistance in navigating the confusing requirements.

Some high schools are trying to increase readiness for both two-year and four-year colleges by getting more students into college-level courses like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge courses. But the Post’s annual America’s Most Challenging High Schools list shows that just 11 percent of high schools have reached a high level of involvement in such courses and tests.

[See the 2015 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list.]

My family, like many others, has positive feelings about community colleges. They were called junior colleges when my parents attended the two-year school in Long Beach, Calif. My mother went on to UCLA, but my father did not graduate from a four-year college. With his junior college degree, his World War II service and much hard work, he supported our family of four as an oil industry reporter and then technical editor for the Navy.

My brother graduated from the two-year College of San Mateo in our Bay Area home town. He then got a B.A. in communications from San Francisco State. He worked for many years as a CSM audio visual staffer and now teaches computers at an elementary school.

If you have personal experience with community colleges, especially in recent years, I would like to hear from you. E-mail me at jay.mathews@washpost.com and tell me what you think are community colleges’ strengths and weaknesses.

American community colleges have many talented faculty and staff. But taken together, from a national perspective, their record is dismal. More than 80 percent of their students say that when they enter they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. Six years after their enrollment, according to the research, just 15 percent have done so.

“These low completion rates reflect widespread failure, disappointment, frustration, and thwarted potential among the millions of students who do not achieve their educational goals,” said community college researchers Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins, in their new book, “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.”

There has never before been as much attention paid to these institutions, born in the mid-19th century and now needing help in the 21st century. They changed many lives for the better, but their future is uncertain. Help me describe what their challenges are and how we might best deal with them.