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Three ways to re-imagine community college, raise grad rates, and better prepare ‘two-year’ students

  • Joanna
  • March 6, 2017

We tend to call them “two-year colleges” — but that’s a serious misnomer.

At community colleges in Michigan, for example, just 13 percent of students who enrolled in the fall of 2013 had completed a degree or transferred two years later, according to state records.

And that’s not the worst of it. We could call these institutions “six-year colleges” and it wouldn’t make much difference. Nationwide, just 39 percent of students who enroll in a community college have graduated with an associate degree in six years.

Why is this happening?

In part, the low grad rates are a result of the way many community colleges were designed in the first place. The goals at the time of the community college boom of the 1960s was to make post-secondary education accessible and affordable to anyone — and many experts say community colleges have done a good job in those regards.

But being able to easily — and inexpensively — enroll in college means nothing if students aren’t prepared for college.

“Realistically, what keeps people from completion is not just on-campus issues,” Mark Yancy Jr., a campus coach at Michigan’s Henry Ford College, recently told The Detroit News. “There’s so much more going on in life that can cause problems.”

Obstacles like a lack of transportation, job changes and unreliable child care can make college untenable. And that’s just the start. Even students who can avoid or overcome off-campus obstacles can struggle to know what to do when they get on-campus.

“No one in my family has ever gone to college of any kind,” Oakland Community College student Erica Mills told The News. “The professors hand out a syllabus — I’ve got no idea what that is. I didn’t know how to pick classes — I took some classes just because they sounded good.”

Add to all of those challenges the fact that community college students are more likely than their university counterparts to already have a history of having struggled in school, and a 1-in-8 graduation rate might not actually seem so bad.

Except, of course, that no one goes into higher education with the intent to drop out. The status quo represents a whole lot of broken dreams.

What can be done? Here are some ideas that Tom Bailey, the director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, shared with The Hechinger Report:  

  1. Offer a concrete graduation plan. College programs tend to have a lot of variability — with literally thousands of potential pathways to a single degree. That can be overwhelming to students with no college experience and little peer or family guidance. Default programs — a class-by-class and semester-by-semester plan of courses students must take to complete a degree, can provide a far less nebulous picture of the path to success.

  2. Provide “meta majors.” “What some places have done is to institute nine or 10 meta majors,” Bailey said. “You might not know you want to be a nurse, but you’re interested in the medical field. Or business. There are some basic courses in those fields that everybody takes. They don’t need to specialize that much.”

  3. Change the preparation dynamic. It’s no secret that many students enter community college (and universities as well, for that matter) lacking fundamental academic skills and knowledge. At most schools, these students are placed in remedial English and math courses ostensibly designed to bring the students up to snuff — even if they’re pursuing degrees where such skills aren’t necessarily vital to success. Instead of preps and prerequisites that delay a student’s journey, Bailey recommends addressing academic needs as they arise in the context of program goals.