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Lawrence Harmon

Degrees of disappointment

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SYLVIA NICKERSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

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BUNKER HILL Community College president Mary Fifield, who is retiring in June, engineered impressive enrollment gains and innovations such as midnight classes at the Charlestown campus. She’s a star. Across town at Roxbury Community College, former president Terrence Gomes stumbled around before resigning last year amid charges of sloppy distribution of financial aid and underreporting of campus crime. He’s a washout. But both presidents have something significant in common: low graduation rates.

Searches are underway at both campuses for new presidents. But the lack of buzz in Boston about the effort is surprising, especially given the Obama administration’s recent focus on community colleges as gateways to the middle class. Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino should be standing on their heads trying to attract first-rate candidates to these posts.

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“Enormous gains are possible if we get the right leadership,’’ said Neil Sullivan, head of the nonprofit Boston Private Industry Council. Sullivan’s group is behind a longitudinal graduation rate study of 2005 graduates of Boston’s high schools. Researchers found that only 16 percent of students who attended Bunker Hill and 17 percent of those who attended Roxbury Community College went on to earn a degree — anywhere — after seven years. And that’s a generous approach to calculating graduation rates. Last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that only 6.5 percent of Roxbury Community College students and 11 percent of Bunker Hill students earned degrees within three years.

Many community college students carry the extra burden of job and family responsibilities. They often come from poor homes and require remedial courses before they can tackle college work. But there’s no valid reason why associate’s degrees at two-year colleges should prove so utterly elusive for first generation, working, and part-time students in Boston.

Most students at the city’s community colleges are members of racial or ethnic minorities. The job descriptions for the new presidents reference affinities for working with diverse populations in urban locations. These could be code words for skin color. But the only color that should matter is the one that adorns the caps and gowns at commencement ceremonies.

Private college presidents spend a lot of time nurturing donors. At community colleges, the more important task is to create relationships with business leaders for the purpose of designing new programs that lead directly to job placements. But employers can’t be expected to embrace institutions known for pitifully low graduation rates. It’s a bad investment.

It is possible to break free of this graduation rate rut. The Private Industry Council, which provides counselors on local campuses, has shown that students from shaky academic backgrounds will persist at community and state colleges at greater rates if provided with help designing courses of study and financial aid strategies. UMass Boston has made terrific progress in this area. Sullivan believes that finding on-campus jobs for community college students will be the next breakthrough by reducing the time students must spend shuttling between work and school.

Maybe. But what would help more is a larger share of full-time faculty committed to helping students across the finish line. Currently, the colleges rely too heavily on adjunct instructors. At Roxbury Community College, full-time professors comprise just 35 percent of the faculty. At Bunker Hill, that figure drops to 22 percent.

The Patrick administration is taking aggressive steps to revive the community college system. The state commissioner of higher education is designing a funding formula that takes performance measures, including graduation rates, into account. And a pilot program is underway at about a dozen state and community colleges to provide grants to students who maintain continuous enrollment. But Patrick stopped short of sending the most powerful message possible that change is needed: Consolidating the two Boston campuses and hiring one president to run a centralized operation.

Community control has been a big issue in Roxbury, especially. But community input into hiring and programs hasn’t improved the quality of education. That’s why many of the most motivated students in Roxbury submit to long commutes by public transit to reach the higher-performing MassBay Community College in outlying Wellesley Hills.

Location, however, might count when it comes to finding new presidents. Virginia and North Carolina, for example, have highly effective community colleges. Maybe that’s where the search committees should be concentrating their efforts. It could take an outsider to appreciate the true potential of these institutions as a source of successful college graduates.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at ­harmon@globe.com.
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