LCCC among 10 community college leaders selected for Unlocking Opportunity

photo of students in caps and gowns at graduation with one student standing holding her diplomaLaramie County Community College was recently selected as one of 10 community colleges nationwide to participate in a program aimed at improving students’ outcomes in higher education called Unlocking Opportunity.

The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Community College Research Center at Teacher College, Columbia University, in February announced LCCC would be in its national network of exceptional community colleges committed to ensuring that every student can earn a degree or high-quality workforce credential. For three years, LCCC will work within the network to monitor student success with a network of resources, including some of the “brightest minds in the nation” in the community college space, said LCCC President Joe Schaffer.

Nationwide, nearly 60% of community college students never earn a credential in six years. Those numbers are even lower for certain disadvantaged populations, including Latinos, where only 37% will earn a credential in six years. There are also challenges for low income students, with only a 23% three-year graduation rate. Unlocking Opportunity is an important initiative, Schaffer said, because while LCCC has more than doubled its graduation rates in last decade — from 14% in 2010 to 39% in 2021 — there’s room to do better.

“What Unlocking Opportunity really does is it helps us to double down on student success,” he said. “We need to really look at those populations which are struggling the most and aren’t rising to the levels that other students are. It requires us to be more purposeful and more specific.”

For those who do earn a credential, many are still struggling to support themselves. Just 23% of associate-degree graduates and 37% of occupational-certificate earners garner at least $35,000 annually two years after completion.  

“What it tells us is not all of our completions are equal,” Schaffer said. “In some cases, we’re asking people to invest time, effort, tuition and resources for a credential that ultimately will only earn them just above poverty wage. The value of a completion is now what we have to think about.”

There is data to show that LCCC’s transfer degrees have economic value, as long as they are used to complete a degree at another institution. Less than one in five nationwide who earn an associate degree actually go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. LCCC does better at this. Of four associate-degree graduates, two will successfully transfer to a university partner. Of those two, one will earn a bachelor’s degree in three years.

Ultimately, Schaffer said there’s research from the Community College Research Center showing that low enrollment levels in the last 20 years could be attributed to prospective students not seeing a return on investment in going to college. Unlocking Opportunity, he said, would allow LCCC to look at all these areas and work toward improvement.

Unlocking Opportunity doesn’t require any single reform of network members. But each college will commit to advancing reforms through five broad strategies:

  1. Set a family-sustaining wage standard and assess programs against it
  2. Setting goals for changing program-level enrollments and outcomes
  3. Strengthen the program portfolio and partnerships to increase post-graduation success
  4. Align advising to greater and more equitable completion of high-value programs
  5. Institutionalize reforms

It’s Schaffer’s hope that the initiative will help LCCC provide its students with what they are looking for: a degree that helps them change their lives for the better.

“Right now, the majority of our students come to us wanting a better life through inspired learning, transforming their lives, and that better life is often grounded in their ability to achieve a rewarding career,” he said.

More information about the Unlocking Opportunity initiative is available on the Aspen Institute website.