Community Colleges Consider Changes to Improve Graduation Rates

Posted By Eliana Osborn on July 19, 2016 at 7:48 am
Community Colleges Consider Changes to Improve Graduation Rates

Community colleges face increased scrutiny over the low number of students who graduate or transfer to four-year schools. And it seems as though everyone wants to tell them how to improve graduation rates: Think tanks, officials, and the general public all have ideas on what needs to change.

The research is clear though about certain strategies that make the most difference in student outcomes. As the Community College Resource Center notes, “Student persistence and completion rates at community colleges are low, particularly among low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students.” The need to better serve the most vulnerable populations is clear. Improvements in these three areas are correlated to high impact results for community colleges.

Considering cost and graduation rates

Hillary Clinton has proposed tuition-free college for American students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. Already, many states bridge the gap between federal aid and actual cost to make community college cost free for students. Finances certainly are among the reasons for poor graduation rates, as 69% of community college students work while enrolled, 33% full-time. Nontraditional students, those older than 24, have family responsibilities as well as economic struggles that can combine to make continued studies simply not feasible.

Emergency aid, increased Pell Grants, and other programs help with costs but still have a long way to go to keep students on track for graduation.

Remediation as a graduation rate factor

Another change aiming to improve completion rates has to do with developmental basic skills courses. Traditionally, students take a placement test before enrolling in community college. Very often they score poorly, indicating a need for remediation before they are up to the level of skill expected in higher education.

The problem with remedial courses is two-fold. First, semesters spent on these classes use financial aid that usually has time limits. Many learners spend two or more semesters before being able to start classes toward their degree or career goal, running out of Pell eligibility long before their education is done. Secondly, the long path to graduation becomes longer when prerequisites are added. Students often give up on school altogether when faced with multiple math and writing classes needed.

Much of the CCRC’s work deals with remediation, which research shows has little effect on actual success. Some schools are shifting to concurrent enrollment, where a student takes a skills class alongside regular coursework. Others have found success with better placements, using tests as well as transcripts to figure out the best fit.

Better guidance can boost graduation rates

Better advisement can also make a big difference for students. At Arizona Western College and other schools, federal funds are used to provide extra support to cohort groups. Keep Envisioning Your Success, or KEYS, helps students with orientation and study skills activities, advisement and planning, with an eye to graduation.

First generation, minority, or nontraditional students in particular need more support from counselors or advisers early in their college experience. Yearly check-ins aren’t enough to make sure the right classes are being selected and enough credits are taken to graduate on schedule. That’s where many schools are innovating with incentives for frequent adviser meetings, freshman year groups, or other programs to keep students progressing.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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