The 2019 report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that the overall six-year completion rate for all types of institutions — two-year, four-year, public and private — was at 59.7%, while the completion rate at public two-year institutions, specifically, is 40.8%.
“Community colleges are generally designed to do what society asked them to do in the 60s and 70s — get students in the door into college
courses cheaply,” says Dr. Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They’re not well designed to help students explore their interests … and develop a plan that will enable them to either enter the labor market directly to a good job with prospects for further education or transfer [to a four-year institution] with junior standing in a major.”
Impediments to completion
Jenkins says many community college students have been lost at the onset when they take a placement test. They’re channeled into prerequisite courses in math and English that are supposed to help them succeed in college, but instead sets them up for failure, Jenkins says.
“Abstract algebra is a course that has been taught unchanged for 50 or 60 years,” Jenkins says. “It is not valid preparation for the kinds of quantitative reasoning students need. Society uses abstract mathematics as a means of sorting by race and class.”
What students need, says Jenkins, are courses that spark their interest and build the necessary skills to be successful in college.
“In community colleges, the fact is students need a light-the-fire learning experience from the start,” says Jenkins, noting at least 50% of the students of color don’t persist past the first couple of terms. “In every foundational course — accounting 101, psychology 101, history 101 — students need to be taught how to do college-level work.”
The light-the-fire courses that Jenkins notes can include getting students involved in research projects pertaining to their communities.
What makes remedial prerequisite courses in math and English significant barriers is that these are non-credit courses, so students are using their financial aid and loan dollars to take them, even though they don’t count toward completion. If a student fails and has to repeat a course, limited financial resources are quickly depleted so they’re done before they really get going.
Faced with many students dropping out before completing their certificate programs or associate degrees (stop-outs), programs are being developed to re-engage those students. Tennessee Reconnect is a state program which began in 2015 and aims to help adult learners earn a certificate or finish a degree.
The 2018-19 academic year marked the launch of the Tennessee Reconnect Grant, a last-dollar grant that allows adult learners to
complete an associate degree or technical certificate. There were more than 41,000 applications for the grant and 18,217 adults received grant funding and enrolled in eligible institutions the first year. More than 2,000 individuals have completed certificates or earned degrees, says Jessica Gibson, senior director for adult learner initiatives for the Tennessee Higher Learning Commission.
In order to identify candidates for the grant, Tennessee Reconnect has partnerships with state agencies, such as the Department of Human Services and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Some state employees in those agencies have been trained as Reconnect ambassadors, identifying people who may wish to return to college.
Whether or not people access the grant money, they’re able to utilize the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Reconnect Navigator, which provides free, high-touch support to and through completion. For stop-outs who owe money to an institution, a navigator will help the student set up a payment plan so they can pay off that debt while pursuing a credential. For those with federal student loan default, navigators talk them through the loan rehabilitation process.
“We continually follow up with those students throughout the loan rehabilitation process so that, when their loans are in good standing, they can then reapply for financial aid and enroll in college,” says Mary Laphen, director of Reconnect Navigator.
Inspired by Tennessee Reconnect, Dr. Monique Perry, campus operating officer and associate vice president of enrollment management at York Technical College in South Carolina, created Reconnect with York Tech to reach stop-outs. The college reached out to students who had previously attended within the past five years but didn’t complete.
“We provided students with funding to complete their degree if they were 50% or more completed or they could start a new high demand workforce program that can be completed within 12–15 months or less,” says Perry. “We launched the program in the summer of last year, and within 90 days, we received 400 applications to the college. Half of those students enrolled.”
Perry says a culture focused on student success is essential. Once the culture is there, high impact practices, such as monitoring student progress and frequent interaction with advisors, can be utilized.
Donna Linderman, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at City University of New York (CUNY), concurs. Among CUNY’s 26 campuses, seven are community colleges.
CUNY offers two pre-matriculation programs, CUNY Start and Math Start, for students identified as having developmental education needs in math, reading and writing. Specially-trained teachers utilize a carefully developed curriculum. CUNY Start lasts one semester and costs $75. Math Start students can enroll in semester-long, eight-to-ten week cycles or an intensive summer program. The shorter cycles cost $35 and the semester-long program is $75. All materials are included in the cost. Completion rates exceed 80%.
“Most of the students come in with three needs, and we find that more than 60% of them wipe those needs out completely before they matriculate, which is an enormous opportunity for them to preserve their financial aid and then to take and earn more credits once they matriculate,” says Linderman.
CUNY is phasing out prerequisite remediation courses by fall 2022 and replacing them with a co-requisite model. Students will take gateway courses in math or English for credit and at the same time have support built into the schedule for those classes.
One of the things Jenkins, co-author of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, says is essential is “scheduling classes that students need … when they need them.” This means putting classes in blocks — mornings, afternoons, evenings and weekends — so students can be at school for finite periods of time. “Students can go part-time and finish in three years,” he says.
Linderman says CUNY ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, founded in 2007) provides a range of financial, academic and personal supports. Students’ schedules mesh with their multiple priorities and help them graduate in three years or less. As of fall 2016, the two-year graduation rate was 25% and the three-year graduation rate was 47%.
All CUNY community colleges offer summer courses. There is reciprocity, so if the college at which students are enrolled doesn’t offer a desired summer course, they may take it at another school.
Three-year system graduation rates of full-time, first-time freshmen in associate programs rose from 12% in fall 2007 to 24.2% in fall 2016. It is projected that by 2022 ASAP expansion will help increase the CUNY three-year associate system graduation rate to 36%.
“I would say the most important thing is to take a comprehensive start-to-finish approach to removing barriers that students face — both financial and structural,” says Linderman.
Linderman also suggests a commitment to using data — not just to evaluate outcomes at the end of the semester or to do a research project, but for program management. “All levels of staff should be using data on a day-to-day basis in an organized manner so they see we are moving towards the goals we’ve set,” says Linderman.
In addition to freshmen experiences and accommodating schedules, Jenkins says another best practice is to design the new student experience around broad career areas to help students explore their career and academic interests.
“Give help by the end of the first term to make a full program plan,” says Jenkins. “Help students stay on path. … Connect the students with people in their field of interest and develop a plan. Then, track their progress on the plan to completion.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.