How the mission of community college is changing

Two-year institutions are tailoring their curricula to local industries

Community colleges are shifting their focus to provide students with improved pathways for graduation and career success, Chris Nicholson reports for University Business

Two-year institutions have historically given students free range to choose from a wide selection of courses. However, this approach does not always guide students toward the best outcomes. Now community colleges are narrowing course selection for students and helping them better define academic and career goals.

"The big movement now is to rethink the entire structure of a college and the entire architecture of students' experiences—restructuring how curricula are set up, redesigning how student supports are delivered, and not doing a pilot but doing it for everybody in the college all at once," says Melinda Mechur Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Driving graduation rates 

Guttman Community College has worked to make the path to graduation more efficient for students. Prospective students are asked to visit the campus at least twice during the admissions process to gain a better understanding of the school's expectations. Once they get to campus, new students are required to attend a two-week Summer Bridge Program before the semester begins. During their first year, students must attend Guttman full-time and complete a core curriculum. All students are required to undergo academic advising and complete a course on choosing a major and career.

Limiting students' academic choice has been an effective strategy. Among Guttman's students who enrolled in 2012, 49% graduated in three years, compared with the national average of 20%, according to MDRC.

The American Association of Community Colleges' Pathways Project and its partners are at the helm of numerous completion efforts, including those at:

  • Atlantic Cape Community College, which launched a prior-learning assessment to grant academic credit for previous experience;
  • North Central State College, which created a tutoring center open 40 hours per week; and
  • Springfield Technical Community College, which implemented an intrusive advising program.

Leading students into the workforce

Creating more focused pathways for community college students also benefits local industries by providing an influx of skilled workers.

Two-year institutions are offering programs that teach skills relevant to regional industries such as:

  • A BMW Scholars Program for students pursuing manufacturing-related degrees in South Carolina;
  • Slot machine repair at schools in Nevada; and
  • Training to crew and operate sailboats and ships in California.

Community colleges are also offering four-year bachelor's degrees to help students work in local industries. For example, San Diego Mesa College offers a Bachelor of Science in health information management and North Seattle College offers Bachelor of Applied Science degrees in application development and international business. 

Related: 3 ways to engage students in the perfect program

While some local colleges and universities have objected to two-year institutions offering bachelor's degrees, the practice will only serve as a boon for the local job market, says Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees.

"Whether a community college decides to offer a four-year degree or not should be really a function of what is needed in that community," Brown says. "The goal ought to be to meet the needs of the students in the best and most affordable fashion that we can. Competing for the virtue of competition generally just drives up costs for everybody and creates inefficiencies" (Nicholson, University Business, accessed 4/28). 

Also see: Help students navigate their way through college

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