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Eight years ago administrators laying plans for Guttman Community College in New York City set a goal: This school would not be like so many other community colleges with low completion rates. Guttman would make getting students to graduation a primary mission.
That approach is proliferating across the community college sector, says Melinda Mechur Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“There’s been a realization that if we really want to increase completion numbers, then we need to rethink how community colleges are organized and how reforms are done,” she says. “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.”
Community colleges and their umbrella associations have all seen the attrition problem, resulting in administrators, politicians and experts at all levels considering reform. “There’s this synergy between what folks in the field are seeing and wanting to try, what the research is saying, and external pressures from the states,” she says.
The old, one-size-fits-all approach of community colleges—wherein every student is welcome to attend and then allowed to cherry-pick from a wide spectrum of broad and homogenized topics—is giving way to a more narrow and guided approach.
“We now know from behavioral economics that too much choice is counterproductive,” Karp says. “A smorgasbord of options is overwhelming and hard to navigate. That’s particularly true for students whose families may not have attended college, who may not be from this country, who haven’t had an experience in education previously—and it’s those very students that we’re trying to help.”
The evolution is potentially huge—it’s more of a revolution, because of how widespread the sentiment is, says J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). “This is probably the biggest development in the community college world since the Truman Commission Report in 1947, which paved the way for the development of the modern community college system.
“We have community colleges and technical colleges that are virtually franchised in just about every community across the country, with a strong emphasis on access,” he says. “But access without success is meaningless.”
Galvanizing for graduation
Guttman’s approach has become a model of the movement.
“When we looked at the graduation rates of the students who entered New York City community colleges and at the graduation rates nationwide, they were paltry, sometimes in the single digits,” says Stuart Cochran, dean of strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. The goal: Build a college designed not only to retain students through graduation, but to get them to an associate’s degree relatively quickly—within two to three years.
The school asks prospective students to visit the campus at least twice during the admissions process, so they fully understand the college’s philosophy and expectations. And before the semester begins, new students attend a two-week Summer Bridge Program designed to prepare them for the rigors of higher education.
Guttman also requires first-year students to attend full-time and to complete a core curriculum designed around experiences and topics relevant to the lives of most its students, who are primarily New York City natives. All students receive mandatory academic advising, and complete a two-part, full-credit, cohort-based “Ethnographies of Work” course that teaches how to choose a major and a career.
Central to the strategy is a structured pathway to a degree, rather than the free-range landscape of courses offered at larger and traditional universities. Subsequently, Guttman limits students’ choices, but boasts a better completion rate than many other community colleges.
Of the students who enrolled in 2012 (Guttman’s inaugural year), 49 percent graduated in three years, far above the national average of only 20 percent, according to MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research firm.
Even more important is the number of graduates who go onto to baccalaureate programs or start a career, Cochran says. While comprehensive data on those objectives is not yet available, the results appear to show the program is accomplishing its goals.
Guttman had the advantage of knowing what problem to solve before it opened its doors, but most community colleges are tackling the same issues by changing existing approaches and programs. And this is happening all over.
Many of these completion efforts are being guided by the Pathways Project (founded by the American Association of Community Colleges, or AACC) and its partners, including Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit network of over 200 community colleges in 35 states serving more than 4 million students. These efforts help colleges transform and create programs targeted at improving student success.
Among the network’s member institutions are Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts, which has implemented an intrusive advising program marked by proactive outreach to students via multiple means of contact. North Central State College in Ohio has founded a tutoring center that’s open 40 hours per week and has helped more than 25 percent of its student population improve grades and pass courses.
And Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey has launched a prior-learning assessment to award academic credit for students’ professional experience and previously earned credentials.
Addressing community needs
The widespread changes in community colleges are also strengthening the connection between a challenged population striving for a better life and local industries yearning for a more educated workforce.
This has been a component of the community college mission for a long time, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of the AACC. But it’s getting more attention lately because politicians who support the free-tuition movement tout community colleges’ ability to put students into good careers, particularly as the national job market rebounds.
“Community colleges, especially in the United States, serve that unique purpose where they have job certificates and training courses, and these are great examples of model programs,” she says.
For instance, three community colleges in South Carolina offer a BMW Scholars Program for students pursuing manufacturing-related degrees; schools in Nevada offer programs in slot machine repair; and institutions in California offer degree training to crew and operate large sailboats and small ships.
Also in recent years, more community colleges have been offering four-year bachelor’s degrees to qualify more people for jobs in local industries. Examples include San Diego Mesa College’s Bachelor of Science in health information management, and North Seattle College’s Bachelor of Applied Science degrees in application development and international business.
Some bachelor’s programs have received pushback from nearby private universities and state schools, but AACT’s Brown believes there should be no fear of competition.
“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.”
Cooperation is also key to the reverse transfer process, wherein students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution can obtain the associate’s degree from the community college once they earn enough credits.
The institutions involved recognize the value to the student when they attain every degree they’re eligible for. “It’s another way of making sure that students complete what they start and another way of lessening the barriers to completion,” Brown says.
All this growth and change is coming at a time when public perception of community colleges appears to be improving.
“Twenty years ago we used to complain a lot about feeling like the stepchildren of higher ed,” Brown says. “There was the erroneous assumption that community colleges were just full of students who couldn’t hack it at a four-year institution or perhaps older adults who were taking courses in arts and crafts.”
But the Great Recession boosted enrollment—double-digit gains were recorded in each year from 2009 to 2011—and many students realized they could get a good education at a lower cost, thus reducing student loan debt.
“There is such an emphasis on the four-year degree as being the be-all and end-all that is has done somewhat of a disservice to the fact that there are many well-paying, important jobs in our economy that don’t necessarily require one, but that certainly require an associate’s or a two-year intensive certificate program,” Brown says. “People are beginning to wake up to that fact.”