Iowa State becomes national source of community college research

AMES, Iowa -- This week, President Obama followed through on his promise to make community colleges the centerpiece of a plan to revitalize the American economy, announcing a new $12 billion proposal. And one week earlier, Iowa State University was named the research centerpiece of a new national community college clearinghouse.

Minnesota Governor and Education Commission of the States (ECS) Chair Tim Pawlenty announced the July 9 agreement on behalf of ECS, the Academy for Educational Development and Iowa State University to establish the Community College Policy Center. The center is designed to be a national resource for state policymakers, community college leaders, policy analysts and researchers as they seek to fully leverage community colleges as critical mechanisms for achieving student attainment and workforce development goals.

Linda Serra Hagedorn, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies and director of ISU's Research Institute for Studies in Education (RISE), will play a role in the new center. Last week, she also became the president-elect of the national Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).

Author of the chapter "The pursuit of student success: The directions and challenges facing community colleges" in the annual edition of the "Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research" (edited by John C. Smart), Hagedorn is one of the first to bring a community college research focus to the ASHE presidency.

"The president who was elected last year was Dr. Barbara Townsend. She passed away on June 11 and was unable to take office," Hagedorn said. "Dr. Townsend and I share the same area of expertise -- community college student success. And prior to her passing, I told her I was nominated for president. She encouraged me to run because no one who had community colleges as their research agenda had ever been president of ASHE."

Contributing research to the new center

Research will also be Iowa State's major contribution in the new Community College Policy Center through its Office of Community College Research and Policy and Hagedorn's RISE.

"Currently, no organization has been monitoring the vast number of research and policy reports on community college," said Larry Ebbers, a University Professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and head of ISU's Community College Leadership Program. "We see the Community College Policy Center as an opportunity and natural extension of the decades-long commitment of Iowa State to conduct research and provide leadership training and support to community colleges across the nation."

Hagedorn credits Ebbers with establishing Iowa State's role in the new center. She says ISU researchers will now be working to provide the new center with the research data it needs.

"We (Iowa State) have those special skills to be able to evaluate and provide the background to determine whether these (community college) practices really work," Hagedorn said. "So perhaps it will be performing some meta-analysis across different studies that may exist in different places, but haven't been pulled all together. We have the resources and methods to do that."

Her own research has shown that community colleges do play a critical role in the educational success of many students. And she sees her new roles with both ASHE and the Community College Policy Center working in harmony to spread more of that good news.

Concerned about the spending plan

Hagedorn, a community college faculty member who began her own postsecondary education as a community college student, applauds President Obama's announcement this week that acknowledges the importance of community colleges in America. But she also has concern about how the money will be spent.

"My concern stems from the importance of getting it right," Hagedorn said. "There won't be a second chance to apply $12 billion, so I am concerned that haste may take the front seat to appropriate planning and investigation. As the president has indicated, the success rates of community college students can only be described as disappointing. Yet despite numerous programs and sponsored initiatives -- such as the Lumina Foundation's 'Achieving the Dream' and the Ford Foundation's 'Bridges to Opportunities' plus many others -- the problems persist. Simply put, more money may not solve the problem if we don't know how best to spend it."

She says some of the money should fund research projects to provide longitudinal data that follows students from community colleges to four-year institutions. But there are many needs.

"President Obama is correct in citing the issues of infrastructure and decay that threaten the future of community college education," Hagedorn said. "Upon first inspection, it appears that this is a problem that money can solve. But along with the new and updated classrooms, the colleges will need funds to hire a new cadre of faculty that are trained not only in their disciplines but also in adult pedagogy. Don't forget faculty development of current faculty including the large group of adjuncts. The buildings alone won't increase success rates."

The president-elect serves a three-year term on the ASHE Board. Hagedorn's term will begin at the ASHE conference this November in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.