Improving the Pathway to Higher Education

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by Brian C. Mitchell

College access is a national imperative. Once ranked first in the world for a population with a college degree, the United States now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations. Projections indicate that by 2018, as many as 60 million Americans will lack the skills and credentials to join the knowledge economy. Recognizing that this shortage of college-educated workers takes a huge toll on competitiveness in the global economy, President Obama has called for 8 million more college graduates by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, the pool of applicants to four-year colleges and universities in America continues to shrink, largely because of rising tuition costs. The cost barrier, combined with shifting demographic needs, has increased the attractiveness of community colleges — two-year public and private institutions — for students wishing to continue their education beyond high school. Enrollment at these schools as of 2009 represented 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.

As enrollment at two-year colleges continues to rise — and often becomes over-subscribed — there is a pool of talent from these institutions that have yet to be fully utilized. The vast majority of community college students enter with the intention of transferring to a four-year school. Despite that intention, just 29 percent ultimately transfer, and only 16 percent of students who began their education at two-year colleges go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. Compare that with the average 60 percent graduation rate among students who originally matriculate at four-year institutions. We can quickly see how the dream of advancement through higher education remains elusive for many.

The obvious solution is to create a pathway in higher education for these students. We estimate that about 70 percent of community college students are place bound, whether by choice, familial and cultural ties, the economy or work. At the same time, we know that these numbers are changing and that Americans are likely to become more mobile with the economic and demographic shifts ongoing and shaped further by the great recession. So, what first steps must be taken to prepare for a more mobile workforce in the 21st century?

I have traveled through much of the country recently on behalf of the Edvance Foundation, which is working to develop a project called the Nexpectation Network to move two-year graduates into four-year institutions. What I hear repeatedly on the road is that transfer students must be ready for what awaits them as they move toward four-year degree completion. There are basic skills — the capacity to speak well, work cooperatively, write, apply quantitative methods and use technology — that form the backbone of the liberal arts tradition that infuses most four-year degree programs. On the two-year side, the community college leadership appropriately insists that four-year institutions must value their efforts to teach and prepare students to move to four-year institutions. The problem is that separate higher education systems have developed different educational strategies in good faith and for good reasons historically. What is lacking is the glue that unites them.

The glue that brings the educational approaches and strategies of two-year and four-year institutions together is the student. The solution to forging common cause within a decentralized system of American higher education is to create a pathway that is seamless and transparent with metrics that are helpful and by which stakeholders — students, institutions, government, think tanks, foundations, families and consumers — can make decisions. To do so, there are parameters to determine how we can get a student on the pathway and move them along “from cradle through career,” that is, from two-year graduate to a four-year baccalaureate degree and into the workforce.

First, institutions and policymakers must have a shared commitment to creating pathways for promising students. This will involve a commitment to reserving openings in the admissions class for transfers and creating a campus environment to promote student success at four-year institutions. At community colleges, faculty and staff must prepare students for baccalaureate study and work with a new group of success counselors. Through programs like the Nexpectation Network, we can bridge the gap between two-year counselors and four-year career centers to advise students as personal coaches on a focused academic program that prepares them for the workforce.

Second, we need to identify students likely to seek a four-year degree as early as possible in the postsecondary education life cycle. The psychology is important here. Students and their families must be encouraged to “imagine the possible” as they plan their postsecondary education. Counselors — especially a new group of success counselors paid for through savings recovered as the recruitment costs per student decrease at four-year schools — must work through economic, familial, social and cultural barriers to find “best fit” transfer schools and tap into the $18 billion in institutional aid available each year.

Finally, a “high tech/high touch” solution presumes that mentorship is the guiding force throughout the student’s educational experience. A program that’s some rough combination of philosophical and practical — sort of Pell meets Posse — is likely the best solution to the cognitive dissonance that creates the chasm between two-year and four-year student experiences. Recognizing that students are the glue that unites different educational strategies to produce a more intentional unified and successful student experience is within our grasp. And it doesn’t require a new federal program to get the job done.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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