‘BA blinders’ create barriers to success

Old ideas about higher education are keeping completion rates low at community colleges argues Removing the BA Blinders: Reconceiving Community College Procedures to Improve Student Success, part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Outdated norms — “all students should pursue a BA degree, take four years of full-time courses, expect no interim credentials or payoffs, explore only academic fields (labeled “general education”), and require minimal formal guidance” — pose “serious barriers to nontraditional students, write James Rosenbaum, Janet Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan.

 In our interviews, community college students report a wide variety of mistakes in college. They take many courses without credits, they receive many credits that do not count toward credentials, they face predictable delays without receiving warning about them, and they receive credentials that have no job payoffs.

Many reformers have BA blinders. They devote great energy to transforming low-achieving students into traditional students by imposing massive amounts of remedial coursework. This BA-centric approach has failed consistently—sometimes with failure rates as high as 83% in national studies, for students placed in the lowest level of remedial coursework.

The researchers compared six community colleges with two for-profit career colleges. The career colleges had a much higher success rate: 57 percent vs 37 percent. For blacks, the difference was striking:  While only 19 perent of blacks in community college completed a credential, 64 percent completed at private career colleges.

“Students at private occupational colleges are nearly identical to public community college students in terms of prior test scores, grades, and socioeconomic status,” according to federal data, the researchers point out.

Private career colleges help students earn vocational certificates quickly en route to an associate degree. If they quit after the first certificate, they’ve improved their employment prospects. It’s often a bachelor’s or nothing — usually nothing — for community college students.

In traditional community colleges, students go through a “fail-first” process in which 42% drop out in the first year, 50% of them return, and 53% of them drop out again. In interviews, counselors report that they do not mention their occupational programs to young students (ages 18 to 24). Students are only told about these options if they are returning dropouts or older than age 24.

Since it’s assumed all students should go for a bachelor’s degree, community colleges place students in remedial courses to acquire college-level academic skills and urge first-year students to take a smattering of general education courses. Many students could skip remediation if they were urged to take vocational courses, the report finds. “In our interviews with 48 occupational faculty, most reported that computer networking technicians, medical technicians, and accounting staff only need eighth- to tenth-grade math skills.”

Career colleges structure programs, telling students exactly what to take, require advising, monitor students’ progress carefully and provide job placement services, researchers found. In community colleges, students are on their own — unless they have college-savvy parents who can guide them.

The report recommends seven ways to improve completion:

1. Offer opportunities for quick successes

2. Offer opportunities for quick payoffs

3. Avoid or delay obstacles that prevent success

4. Develop degree ladders

5. Provide structured program pathways with courses in predictable time slots

6. Provide “guardrails” that help guide student progress

7. Emphasize job placement

Many students want a bachelor’s degree because they’ve been told it’s the only path to success.  The portion of incoming freshmen that cited  “to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012, reports UCLA’s annual survey of new students at four-year colleges and universities. There are many realistic options for career-minded students with little chance of completing a bachelor’s degree but a fighting shot at a pharmacy tech certificate or an associate degree in computer networking.