Community Colleges’ Most Challenging Task: Increase Completion Rates

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by Kissette Bundy

 

The STEM Center at Delaware County Community College opened in 2009 as part of a $60 million project.

The STEM Center at Delaware County Community College opened in 2009 as part of a $60 million project.

Community colleges across the nation are in the throes of a system-wide reinvention.

With 13 million students served by more than 1,132 community colleges, topping the list for reforms is improving completion rates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, at two-year, degree-granting institutions, 31 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a certificate or an associate degree in fall 2008 attained it within 150 percent of the normal time required to do so (or within three years). This graduation rate was 20 percent at public two-year institutions, 51 percent at private nonprofit two-year institutions and 62 percent at private for-profit two-year institutions.

At the same time, the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) 21st-Century Commission has pledged to add 5 million college degrees to the global economy by 2020.

To meet that goal it will require groundbreaking change that takes time, planning and optimal use of existing resources, say college officials and advocates for community colleges.

Students must be convinced that investing in their education will pay off by helping them succeed in their career goals, administrators say.

“Early conversations should be happening,” says Frances Cubberley, vice president for enrollment management at Delaware County Community College (DCCC) in Pennsylvania. “The way the message is conveyed is crucial. We want our students to realize that a college education is necessary. You cannot live in today’s economy without it.”

Playing a pivotal role

The role of community colleges is crucial because, according to the AACC, 45 percent of all undergraduates in the United States enroll in community colleges, an increase of 21 percent from 2003 to 2011.

“Schools have to modify programs to meet the changes in needs of the population,” says Gregory Ferguson, director of College Fairs for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Many community colleges have trade-oriented programs in the fields of computer technology, construction, electrical, medical and paralegal studies, where earned certificates can be stepping-stones to an advanced degree.

“Nontraditional students — older adults, veterans and homemakers,” those re-entering the job market, “are looking for programs that equal income,” Ferguson says.

Many community college students do not graduate or complete certification because life happens. Obligations of family and work, and imposing financial and time constraints, particularly in a stagnant job market and economy, may take precedence over higher education aspirations. Moreover, inadequate preparation at the secondary level and knowledge of how to leverage a college experience in balancing and meeting life’s goals can frustrate students’ efforts to succeed.

Reports released in October from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) highlight game plans for effective practices that heighten both student experience and institutional accountability, paving a course to success.

Among recommendations in CCCSE’s research report “A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students,” an analysis of responses from students, faculty and institution leaders, is that colleges intensify proven strategies such as academic planning, student success programs, first-year experience and learning communities.

Appointed a leader college for the nonprofit Achieving the Dream program in 2011, DCCC has executed several of the CCCSE strategies. From 2006 to 2011, the college’s retention rates for students of color have increased, narrowing the gap between them and White students, according to the program’s website.

Of the roughly 15,000 first-time, full-time students who enrolled in fall 2008, 14.5 percent, or 226 students, graduated with an associate degree or certificate within three years, according to Cubberley. The completion rate for the 2009 cohort is 15.3 percent, or 275 graduates of the 18,000 students who enrolled that year.

Conceived in 2004, Achieving the Dream is the nation’s largest network for higher education reform. The organization’s goal is to provide more opportunity for low-income community college students of color in securing a certificate or a degree. The private, independent Lumina Foundation is the founding investor. On Dec. 4, Lumina announced grants to 20 U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky. and Dayton, Ohio, that it has chosen as its first partners in a $4 million national initiative aimed at increasing the number of students graduating with degrees or certifications.

DCCC students take a placement test and sign up for college planning, meeting in small groups for general information. In student-centered structures, core curriculum is often blended with career and professional course work that can be project-based or experiential.

“We are now creating structured pathways,” says Cubberley of DCCC’s design to raise retention and completion rates. “We have an open door acceptance package.”

Many students needing developmental or remedial assistance receive supplemental instruction that can fast-track them to college-level English or math. Beginning in 2014, every student who tests into developmental reading or English must meet with an academic adviser in order to register. Once students satisfactorily complete these courses, they are linked with a faculty member in their major program. Advisory sessions occur every semester.

DCCC has nine campuses, serving 27,000 students annually, about 13,500 enroll every fall. Many are career changers. The median age has jumped to 28 from 22 since 2005. The school has a high school dual-enrollment and partnerships with 17 four-year colleges to offer programs guaranteeing paths to higher education for secondary-school students.

Beginning in fall 2014, DCCC students can earn a degree from the Philadelphia-area Drexel University while remaining on DCCC campuses. Drexel@DCCC will offer courses at DCCC and online. Initial programs include university business and computer security, and a joint-degree associate in science and baccalaureate in nursing path of study.

A reverse transfer option for any course completed at the university, but not currently offered at DCCC, will enable students to graduate with an associate degree from DCCC, as well as receive a tuition discount.

The partnership represents one more step toward easing student access and affordability while fortifying institutional policies of tracking and documenting completion success.

Outcomes of the pilot study and in the report “Searching for Our Lost Associate’s Degrees: Project Win-Win at the Finish Line” surfaced similar benefits in examining existing institutional value. Launched in 2009, IHEP analyzed institutional data from 61 community colleges in nine states, unearthing significant numbers of students eligible for retroactive degrees.

Results forecast a possible 15 percent increase in the number of awarded associate degrees across the nation.

Data mining its own records, DCCC found students who met graduation requirements, says Cubberley, but never applied.

After reaching out to them by letter, DCCC counted an additional 300 students as completers for the academic year ending in 2012.

It is a strategy the community college plans to continue.

“This is something we are doing with our four-year college partners,” says Cubberley. “It’s been a ‘win-win’ all around, for us and our students.”

Kissette Bundy teaches mass media studies at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey.

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