Community colleges 'rethink everything' to improve retention

High cost, overwhelming options, and developmental courses are all barriers to graduation

Low retention rates have forced community colleges to reevaluate and revamp the ways they traditionally serve students, Alina Tugend reports for the New York Times

Only about one-quarter of first-time, full-time students entering public community colleges graduate within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Realizing that small changes would not be enough to move the needle on graduation rates, community colleges have had to "rethink everything about their institutions," says Suzanne Walsh, deputy director of postsecondary education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

How to combat the 58% community college attrition rate

Leaders in higher education have identified several barriers to retention that they are working to address:

Developmental education

Students must often pay for remedial courses that do not usually count toward graduation credits. They are a major impediment for minority students in particular, says Eloy Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College (LBCC). "They use up their financial aid eligibility, and it keeps them from ever getting a degree."

Research shows that more than half of community college students take at least one developmental course because they did not score high enough on math, reading, or writing entry assessments. Now community colleges such as LBCC are using assessment tests in addition to other measures such as high school tests and standardized test scores to determine placement. 

Policies for assessing community college readiness

Tennessee's community college system uses a co-requisite model of developmental education, in which students enroll in a credit-bearing class alongside a developmental course.

Lack of guidance

Too much choice without enough structure generally leads to poor outcomes for community college students. Institutions are increasingly offering guided pathways that make it easier for students to choose the right courses for a timely graduation. 

Academic advising at community colleges

The City University of New York's (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associated Programs offers financial and other means of comprehensive student support at nine of its colleges. At Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, all first-year students are required to enroll full-time and attend orientation and a two-week summer program. There are no developmental courses, but there is a mandatory curriculum for the first year.

Creating guided pathways like these helps administrators better understand the full picture of the student experience, according to EAB Associate Director Melinda Salaman.

"What progressive college leaders understand is that their student success outcomes are a direct output of the policies, procedures, and design of their institution," Salaman says.

"To really move the dial on completion, we need to turn a critical eye to the student experience at each stage in their time at the college–starting from the very first day, and through to graduation. To me, that's what the guided pathways model is all about."

Want to chat about guided pathways with Melinda? Ask her a question

Steep costs 

Even though community colleges are about one-third of the cost of in-state tuition at a public four-year institution, they are still prohibitively expensive for some students.

Currently, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon, and Tennessee offer free or nearly-free community college tuition to eligible high school graduates, while 11 other states have similar bills pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers are also working to pass President Obama's America's College Promise proposal, which would make community college free to certain high school graduates.

A problem of scale

One of the biggest challenges facing community colleges today is how to expand interventions that may have worked with a small group of students to the entire campus, according to Salaman.

And this doesn't always mean hiring more staff in advising or student services, she says.

"It's about empowering students to navigate higher education independently, connecting them with the right supports, and intervening when they demonstrate at-risk behaviors" (Tugend, New York Times, 6/22). 


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