A Call for Big Changes to Meet a Big Challenge at Community Colleges

Quick fixes aren’t enough to boost lagging completion rates, says a new report

December 18, 2014

More than a decade of efforts to propel low-income and underserved students through community college have fallen short because states and colleges haven’t made systemwide commitments to strategies like streamlining degree requirements, accelerating remediation, and financially rewarding colleges for raising graduation and persistence rates, according to a report being released on Thursday by Jobs for the Future.

The report, "Policy Meets Pathways: A State Policy Agenda for Transformational Change," calls for sweeping new strategies that affect all students, not just the few participating in pilot programs on individual campuses.

"If we’ve learned anything over the last 10 years of the completion movement, it’s that there’s no silver bullet—no single discrete strategy that will result in the dramatic improvements we’re hoping for," the report’s author, Lara K. Couturier, program director for the group’s postsecondary state policy team, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Jobs for the Future, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as other major philanthropies, promotes efforts that lead from college readiness to career advancement to help people who are struggling to get ahead. It is one of several high-profile groups, including Complete College America, that travel from state to state promoting policies that put incentives on higher graduation rates and more-efficient degree paths.

The completion movement is backed by groups including the Gates and Lumina Foundations, as well as the Obama administration, but it’s eyed suspiciously by some educators who feel it sometimes expects a lockstep adherence to a set of policies that don’t work for all students and that could cause standards to slip.

Many students come to community colleges with jobs, families, and academic skills so low that they struggle even in remedial classes, the skeptics say. For such students, compressed remedial sequences and full-time structured pathways could be overwhelming. Colleges, meanwhile, might be tempted to lower standards to get more students through when their budgets are at stake.

A ‘Cruel Hoax’?

The latest report stems from Jobs for the Future’s work with a network of nine community colleges in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio that are part of the Completion by Design program, a five-year Gates Foundation effort that is aimed at improving community-college completion rates for low-income students under age 26.

It starts out by acknowledging that completion rates for community colleges haven’t budged and that educators and policy makers are growing impatient.

A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that while more first-time students entered college in 2008, at the peak of the Great Recession, the percentage who completed a degree or certificate by 2014 was 55 percent, down from 56.1 percent for the cohort that started in 2007. That’s despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in retention and completion programs.

The most effective step colleges can take, the new report argues, is to create streamlined, highly structured academic pathways that keep students on track to graduation. And it requires the kind of commitment that Miami Dade College made in hiring 25 more senior advisers to guide students and keep them from falling off course, the report says. Advisers in community colleges typically are responsible for hundreds of students. Meanwhile, budgets have been squeezed by years of state budget cuts and, more recently, declining enrollment.

But unless structured pathways and other completion efforts are scaled up nationally and succeed, the public will lose faith in the open-door mission of community colleges, which educate about half of all undergraduates and 44 percent of low-income students, the report says.

That open-door policy is already being questioned by some educators who say the nation’s completion push assumes that everyone is cut out for college, and that some simply aren’t.

Accepting students who read and write at a middle-school level into a college program and allowing them to use up financial-aid dollars in a remedial sequence they’ll probably never complete is a "cruel hoax," argues Juliet L. Scherer, a professor of English at St. Louis Community College, and Mirra L. Anson, director of retention and early intervention at the University of Iowa. They make that argument in a recently released book, Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

"Enrolling seriously unprepared students in college-level courses when an institution’s funding is highly dependent on student performance and when academic standards are often enforced by unprotected adjunct faculty is perhaps the fastest way to improve completion rates," Ms. Scherer said in an interview on Wednesday. At the same time, it "guarantees obsolescence."

But Ms. Couturier, of Jobs for the Future, said that while completion rates for such students are distressingly low, "I’m willing to keep trying. I don’t see it as a cruel hoax at all to give people hope and opportunity."

Programs like Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, or I-BEST, which is cited in the report, teach students basic skills in the context of trades they’re preparing for. Such programs demonstrate that, with the right interventions and support, students at all levels can benefit from a college education, Ms. Couturier said.

Headaches After a Quick Fix

The report takes aim at state policies that miss the mark in their efforts to improve completion rates. "Too often," it says, "policy makers have sought quick fixes, enacting big legislation without fully evaluating what needs to happen to create success, or without providing adequate resources, building needed buy-in from key stakeholders, or acknowledging the progress already being made on the ground."

Florida, for instance, approved a law last year allowing students to decide for themselves whether they want to take remedial courses. That has created headaches for some faculty members as remedial ranks have dropped by about half and unprepared students have enrolled directly in credit courses.

The report acknowledges concerns that have been raised about one of its strategies, tying state allocations to graduation and retention rates. "Efforts like performance funding or improved transfer seem like no-brainers for policy makers seeking to improve outcomes," the report notes, "but in some cases have encouraged campuses to help the students who are most likely to graduate and to shy away from those hardest to serve."

David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, called the report "a comprehensive and realistic analysis that looks at one way of getting more students to completion." The report, he said, "doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of the changes that need to take place."

At the same time, he said, it raises questions about how students and faculty members would react to limited course offerings and how much emphasis is being placed on the quality, and not just the quantity, of degrees awarded.

How States Could Help Colleges Achieve

Following are seven policy actions that Jobs for the Future recommends for states to increase graduation rates.

1. Streamline academic requirements and create clearly structured programs of study.

2. Accelerate students through remedial, or developmental, education.

3. Expand student-support services, including early alerts and advising interventions when students go off course.

4. Ensure that structured pathways lead to credentials and competencies that help students get jobs with family-sustaining wages.

5. Use statewide data systems to track students through college and into the labor market.

6. Receive financial incentives to improve persistence and completion rates.

7. Expand faculty-led professional-development activities to improve teaching and learning.

Source: Jobs for the Future


Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at