With millions of students and a variety of programs that range from quick certificate courses to full bachelor’s degree pathways, community colleges have a lot going on. Yet all this teaching and learning isn’t always as well recognized or as thoroughly studied as the work taking place at four-year institutions.

To encourage more scholars to pay attention to open-access colleges, several advocates and experts created The Community College Practice-Research-Policy Exchange. The effort seeks to solicit ideas from the faculty and administrators who run community colleges day to day, convey those insights to higher ed researchers, and then deliver their analyses back to educators.

Starting with members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, the exchange plans to ask “what research do you think would be most helpful to you as campus leaders?” explains Lawrence Nespoli, co-founder of the effort and a retired president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. “We’ll take that in the aggregate and deliver it to people who study it at community colleges around the country.”

That may include research about programs that meet the needs of student parents; the benefits and challenges of using open educational resources; or the outcomes of using virtual reality to prepare students for jobs.

The project was started by several emeritus professors and leaders of community colleges. It’s being managed by the University of Maryland Global Campus Program in Community College Policy and Administration and the North Carolina State University Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research. Partners include several champions of community colleges, including the Aspen Institute, the Community College Research Center and Achieving the Dream.

The goal of rooting research in the experiences of professors and campus leaders makes the project unique, according to Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream.

“We have so much good work going on inside colleges that often goes undiscovered if we don’t find that practitioner voice and give it that life and lift,” says Stout, who also has affiliations with the Belk Center and University of Maryland Global Campus.

To “fuel and feed” doctoral students in need of good dissertation topics, Stout believes community colleges can inspire “endless categories of research.” The exchange is currently soliciting ideas in about a dozen broad areas, including transfer practices, developmental education and partnerships with K-12 schools.

The project was in the works long before the Biden administration shined a spotlight on community colleges, Nespoli says. But the timing ultimately worked well, especially considering the president’s recent call to invest billions of dollars in evidence-based strategies that improve completion and retention at community colleges.

“We’re beginning to see a lot of momentum and interest in community colleges for a number of reasons,” Stout says. “We need to find ways to study ourselves and elevate the voice of practitioners who are in the middle of transformation—to learn with them and help them with new ideas.”