Uncluttering the Pathway to the Diploma

Report identifies strategies for community colleges to get more students to the finish line

September 18, 2014

Community-college students who register for their college-level classes before the term begins are 11 times more likely to persist into their second year, while students whose instructors enforce strict attendance policies are nearly three times as likely to complete remedial-mathematics courses.

Those are two examples of the "low-hanging fruit" ripe for picking by colleges that are struggling to graduate more students, according to a report released on Thursday by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas here.

Low completion rates continue to plague two-year colleges, despite a flurry of high-level efforts aimed at pushing more students through to the finish line. A major challenge is deciding which of the myriad strategies being touted by educators and supported by foundations are most likely to work.

The latest report, "A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways," seeks to help colleges sort through the clutter and commit, campuswide, to a few promising strategies.

"It is time for colleges to step up from small-scale, discrete practices to rethinking how they use their resources," the report says, "and to making high-impact practices inescapable for all students."

Students need more than good intentions to reach their goals, it points out. Eight out of 10 entering community-college students surveyed by the University of Texas center last year said they hoped to earn an associate degree. However, a 2011 study found that only 54 percent of those starting at two-year public colleges had earned a degree or certificate or were still enrolled in college six years later.

One of the most successful, and underused, strategies, according to the report's authors, is the accelerated remedial course. Students who take such a course during their first term are nearly two and a half times more likely to pass a remedial English course, yet only 16 percent of students participate in the courses, the report notes.

The report, which was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, examined five structured group practices: orientation, accelerated or fast-track developmental education, first-year experiences, student success courses, and learning communities—two or more linked courses that a group of students takes together.

Each practice moves the needle on at least one of the following "success outcomes"—completion of at least one developmental course with a C or better, completion of at least one introductory college course or gatekeeper course with a C or better, and persistence from one semester or academic year to the next. Not surprisingly, the more of those practices the students combine, the more likely they are to succeed.

Among the specific findings:

  • Attendance policies matter. Developmental-math students were nearly three times more likely to complete the course when all of their instructors clearly explained attendance policies.
  • Student-success courses work. Developmental students who participated in such courses, which cover topics such as study skills, test-taking strategies, and time management, were nearly four times more likely to pass an introductory, college-level English course.
  • On-time registration is key. Students enrolled in college-level classes were more than four times more likely to persist from fall to spring, and more than 11 times more likely to continue from fall to fall, when they registered for all of their courses before the first class.

The report released this week is the third and final one that the University of Texas center produced after combing through the results of two separate but related national student surveys.

Its first report identified 13 "high-impact" practices that help students succeed by getting them engaged in their education.

The second focused on notable differences in engagement among students based on whether they participate in practices like academic goal setting and tutoring. It also pointed out how relatively few students take advantage of such programs if they aren’t required.

The center’s director, Evelyn N. Waiwaiole, hopes the final report, which quantifies how much specific practices affect completion and success rates, will inspire community colleges to focus on two or three strategies they can scale up campuswide.

The common denominator in all of the efforts outlined in the report is the importance of strong advisers "who give accurate, timely, and consistent information," Ms. Waiwaiole says.

"You don’t have to have the title of adviser," she adds. "Secretaries, faculty members, front-desk people, and cafeteria workers can all serve that role."

For instance, she says, colleges could supply staff members in various departments with answers to the 15 most-asked questions so students don’t get the runaround, get frustrated, and give up.

Another successful strategy, the report says, is teaching remedial courses or skills in contexts that match students’ areas of interest.

Students who are overwhelmed with class offerings can easily veer off course, says Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a researcher at its Community College Research Center.

Structured pathways that offer fewer choices can help. For many students, she says in the report, "Finding a path to completion is the equivalent of navigating a shapeless river on a dark night—and the wider the river, the more difficult it can be to find the way."

A clearly mapped program pathway provides "curricular coherence," adds Davis Jenkins, a colleague at the Community College Research Center.

"Allowing students to cobble together their own programs from a long list of distribution requirements, as is often the case with general-education offerings, increases the risk that students will take a grab-bag of disconnected courses that do not enable them to build their skills as they progress through the curriculum," he says.

Colleges, too, can become overwhelmed by all of the success strategies, many of which fade out when foundation money dries up. Trying too many can spread institutions too thin, the authors note. Zeroing in on a few and extending them to all students makes more sense, Ms. Waiwaiole says.

The report highlights colleges that are structuring their programs to provide an efficient and coherent sequence for students. The Alamo Colleges system houses all of its degree and certificate programs in the Alamo Institutes, with recommended course sequences that minimize the chances that students will accumulate unnecessary credits.

When students at Miami Dade College reach 25 percent of their completion benchmarks, academic advisers, some of whom are full-time faculty members, serve as coaches and mentors, providing targeted career, transfer, and employment advice.

The City University of New York created the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College from scratch to incorporate completion strategies. Students are required to attend full time in their first year, and all students start with a three-week summer bridge program.

Lake Washington Institute of Technology is among the institutions that rolled out the i-BEST program to teach basic-skills students in job-related contexts.

"With so much going on in our field, it’s easy to get distracted," Ms. Waiwaiole says. "The key is homing in on what’s going to work best for your students and what’s realistic fiscally, and making sure every student gets to participate."