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Friday, June 09, 2017

Community Colleges and Student Success: Models for Comprehensive Reform | EDUCAUSE Review

Substantially increasing community college completion rates requires comprehensive institutional reform with a focus on measureable student success, an intentional and cohesive package of programmatic components, and a culture of evidence.

Photo: Thomas Bailey
"Over the last few decades, the importance of a college education has grown both for society and for individuals. This is reflected in the large earnings gap between individuals with a high school degree and those with a postsecondary credential." argues Thomas Bailey, Director of the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

However, most students who start in community colleges never complete a degree or certificate. This constitutes a failure for those students to achieve their goals and represents a loss of potential earning power and economic growth and activity for the economy as a whole. Although students experience earnings gains by accumulating credits without graduating, they get a significant additional increase upon completing a credential.1

The Growing Focus on College Completion  
Public higher education policy in the latter half of the 20th century was designed to open college to the large majority of the U.S. population. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill), the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (which established the Pell Grant), and the rapid growth of community colleges were all designed to make college accessible for all students. They focused on reducing the cost of college to the student and, in the case of community colleges, established open-access, flexible, convenient colleges in reasonable proximity to a large majority of the population, especially including groups traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education. At the same time, technology and the characteristics of work were also changing, resulting in increasing demand for a more educated workforce. These factors contributed to increases in college enrollment, such that by the turn of the century, over 75 percent of high school graduates had attended some postsecondary institution by their mid-twenties.2

But over the last twenty years, educators and policy makers have turned their attention to college completion. While progress on enrollment cast community college performance in a positive light, the more recent focus on completion yields a much more negative image. In 2000, the Department of Education began publishing three-year graduation rates for most colleges that tracked cohorts of first-time, full-time students who started in community college. Graduation rates for many colleges were in the single digits and teens. The overall three-year completion rate for community college students nationwide was 24 percent for the 2000 cohort and 20 percent for the 2010 cohort.3 Researchers, college representatives, and policy makers have criticized this rate as incomplete and misleading.4 But more comprehensive measures from the 1990s showed that less than 40 percent of entering community college students completed any degree or certificate from any college within six years.5

In response to low completion rates, educators, reformers, policy makers, and foundations called for a concerted effort to increase the number of individuals with college degrees and certificates—an effort that has come to be called the "completion agenda." The administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, Lumina Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all called for ambitious increases in the number of college graduates by the middle of the 2020s.6 Many states set goals designed to contribute proportionately to the national goals.7 In addition, the federal government and multiple foundations funded extensive research and reform portfolios. 

Thomas Bailey writes in the conclusion, "This article articulates a comprehensive change model that includes a focus on measurable student success, an intentional and cohesive package of programmatic components, and a culture of evidence. All of these elements are clearly present in the three examples described in the previous section. In all of these cases, the colleges and districts are focused primarily on student completion, the underlying theories of change are based on combining programmatic practices that support and guide students throughout their college careers, and the institutions are committed to tracking student progress and using evidence on student progress and program effectiveness to improve graduation rates."

Narrowly targeted reforms that either treat too few people or are limited to one segment of the student experience have a limited effect on student completion. In contrast, the comprehensive models discussed here, as exemplified by the guided pathways model, are fundamentally based on the integration of a set of coordinated reforms.

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Source: EDUCAUSE Review