Community colleges need big, bold reforms

“Undermatching” — disadvantaged achievers may not apply to selective colleges — was the focus of President Obama’s higher education summit. But the most effective way to help low-income students is to improve community colleges, writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College Columbia, in Inside Higher Ed.  “The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges.”

Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.

In the past, reform initiatives “have focused too narrowly,” writes Bailey. It’s not enough to change remedial education or the first semester. What’s needed is “comprehensive and transformative reform.”

What the CCRC calls the “guided pathways model” provides structure and guidance in “all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion,” Bailey writes.

The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.

Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina’s Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.

The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) is experimenting with a full range of reforms, including the guided pathways model, concludes Bailey. CUNY’s holistic ASAP program has improved completion rates significantly.

A new analysis by the University of Michigan’s Michael N. Bastedo and Allyson Flaster questions key assumptions behind undermatching research, reports Inside Higher Ed. What’s far more important than enrolling in a more or less selective four-year institution is whether a student enrolls in community college, write Basteo and Flaster. Starting at community college significantly lowers the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, they write.


Non-elite students need help to graduate

Harvard lavishes counseling and support on its elite students, while students who really need the help are left to sink or swim, writes David L. Kirp, a Berkeley public policy professor of public policy, in the New York Times.  Non-elite colleges can raise graduation rates by providing structure , guidance and financial aid, he writes.

At the City University of New York’s community colleges, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has more than doubled graduation rates, according to a MDRC report:  56 percent of ASAP students have graduated compared to 23 percent of the control group.

The program for community-college students addresses money issues, which are typically students’ top concern, by covering tuition that’s not paid for by federal and state grants, as well as paying for public transit and giving students free use of textbooks, saving them upward of $900 a year. To help balance the demands of college with work, life and family obligations, students take their classes in a consolidated course schedule (morning, afternoon or evening).

While the added dollars make a big difference, students consistently report in individual profiles found on the CUNY ASAP website that the personal touch — biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising — is crucial. The ASAP adviser for Desiree Rivera, a LaGuardia student, became her life coach. “I am completely able to let my guard down around her and discuss both personal and academic struggles,” Ms. Rivera wrote on her profile. “Her support has played a major role in my success as an ASAP student.”

ASAP costs $3,900 per student each year, but “it’s a solid investment for New York City’s taxpayers,” writes Kirp. “Total lifetime benefits — from increased tax revenues as well as savings in crime, welfare and health costs — are a whopping $205,514 per associate degree graduate,” another study estimates.

CUNY is tripling the size of ASAP by fall. The “strategy merits a nationwide rollout,” writes Kirp. The nation badly needs educated workers.

ASAP isn’t for everyone

Student retention has improved at New York City community colleges that offer the ASAP program, writes Matt Reed, in response to an Atlantic story. ASAP requires students to enroll full-time and provides “intrusive” advisors who function as “something between a truant officer and a personal trainer,” writes Reed. “It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement.”

Among other things, it solves — by essentially ruling out — the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility.  Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program.  (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.)  The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped.  And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work.  Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.

. . . Beyond the money, though — and let’s not forget the money — a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges.  There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.

Nontraditional students “don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time,” Reed observes. He cites an argument in Slate:    “Failure is actually one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system,” writes Tressie McMillan Cottom. “In no other country can a student fail so often, so spectacularly, with such a low penalty. Especially for nontraditional students, failure may be underrated.”

The full-time, double-the-cost ASAP model isn’t a practical answer for most colleges, Reed concludes.

ASAP: More guidance, more degrees

Easy come, easy go is the unofficial motto of community colleges. Anyone can enroll. Few will graduate. Daquan McGee escaped the community college trap by enrolling in City University of New York’s structured, guided, get-it-done ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), writes Ann Hurlbert in The Atlantic.

McGee enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the spring of 2010. At 19, he’d served two years in prison for attempted robbery. He failed placement tests in writing and math, but passed an intensive remedial writing course over the summer, while working full-time at a Top Tomato Super Store. He opted for ASAP in the fall.

McGee would have to enroll full-time . . . Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for . . . a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.

McGee graduated with an associate’s degree in multimedia studies in two and a half years. (I’d love to know if he’s been able to get a better job. Is he on a career path?)

In urban community colleges, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent, Hurlbert writes. “Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.”

ASAP, launched in 2007, aims to get half its students to a degree in three years. It appears to be exceeding that goal, according to preliminary results of a three-year study that randomly assigned students to either ASAP or the regular community-college track. “A third of the students who enrolled in ASAP in the spring of 2010 finished in two and a half years (compared with 18 percent of the control group),” Hurlbert writes.

 ASAP offers lots of guidance, a dose of goading, and a variety of well-timed incentives to its participants (average age at admission: 21), who must sign on to the goal of graduating within three years. The program is intended primarily for low-income students with moderate remedial needs, and it accepts applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. . . . The implicit philosophy behind the program is simple: students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course—daily, weekly, monthly—toward long-term success.

The City University of New York spends an average of $9,800 a year for a community college student; ASAP adds another $3,900 per student. That’s a lot — until you calculate the price per graduate. Then, ASAP is a bargain.

Unprepared in the Big Apple

New York City high schools are flooding community colleges with unprepared students, reports the Village Voice. Eighty percent need remedial reading, writing or math — especially math — when they enroll, up from 71 percent a few years ago.

City University of New York’s community colleges have doubled spending on remediation in just a decade, to $33 million a year, reports the Voice. “Faculty members have been transformed into de facto high school teachers.”

The Voice blames the push to raise graduation rates, but it’s also a sign of increased academic ambitions:  More high school graduates are enrolling in community college.

Seeing very low success rates for remedial students, CUNY began experimenting in 2007 with other ways to prepare students for college-level courses.

Jahleah Santiago and Ashley Baret, who hated math in high school,  are in the START program, an intensive 12-week immersion, at LaGuardia Community College. They spend 15 hours a week in math class.

Nathan Stevens . . . stands at the whiteboard, going over eight homework problems, encouraging all 14 students (average class size is 20) to verbalize their thought processes. . . . “How do you know that you’re finished with the factors now?” . . . as the class simplifies polynomials and multiplied exponents: “Put it into words, Manny. Tell me how you got that answer.”

. . . “In this program we seek to show what’s really happening in the math,” Stevens says. “Rather than teaching my students to memorize the formulas, tricks, rules, I try to reinforce the underlying ideas of what they’re looking at, with the hope that they could solve any problem they see.”

“In my high school, math was kind of under a veil,” says Santiago. “You didn’t know what was going on—you just do that and that and get the answer. Nathan will break it down and do different examples until we get it.”

Sixty to 70 percent of START students reach proficiency in one semester, compared with 20 percent who take regular remedial courses.

CUNY also offers ASAP, a full-year intensive program. It costs more per student plus less per graduate.

. . . of the original cohort who entered ASAP in 2007, 55 percent earned their associates’ degree in three years, compared with 24.7 percent of similar students in the broader CUNY campus and just 16 percent of urban community college students nationally. According to an independent study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Columbia, the graduation rates were so much higher that ASAP cost about 10 percent less per graduate.

If New York City’s public schools invested in  “small class sizes, mastery-based course design, one additional counselor or adviser for every 25 students,” it’s likely more students would learn math in middle and high school, instead of struggling to learn it in college, the Voice suggests. That would save money in the long run, but it would be saved by CUNY and by students, not by the K-12 system.

Study: ASAP cuts cost per graduate

City University of New York’s ASAP program is cost effective when measured by dollars per degree, concludes a new study by Henry M. Levin and Emma Garcia. At six community colleges, more than half of ASAP students graduated in three years, compared to a quarter of similar students not in ASAP.

ASAP is designed to help motivated community college students earn their degrees as quickly as possible. Key ASAP program features include a consolidated block schedule, cohorts by major, small class size, required full-time study, and comprehensive advisement and career development services. Financial incentives include tuition waivers for financial aid eligible students and free use of textbooks and monthly Metrocards for all students.

ASAP costs more, but the cost per graduate is less, the study found. “ASAP can increase considerably the number of CUNY community college graduates while actually reducing costs.”

Ways to get students to stay

Many new college students won’t be back sophomore year.  At community colleges, 56 percent of students return for a second year, up from 51 percent in 2004, according to ACT research. The average retention rate is 74 percent at four-year public or private colleges. Colleges are trying to improve retention rates, reports Caralee Adams on Ed Week.

Weak academic skills and shaky motivation are the major reasons students give up on college, reports ACT.

The City University of New York boosted retention — and three-year graduation rates — through the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). Students move through college as a group. They receive books, transportation aid and tuition support so they can be full-time students.

“If students are struggling, counselors work with faculty and students to get help,” said Donna Linderman, the program’s director. “It’s individualized. That’s the heart and soul of the program—to help with the transition into college and use the resources available.”

Fifty-five percent of the first group earned an associate degree in three years compared to 24 percent of a comparison group.

College Bound, a nonprofit in St. Louis, provides coaches to help low-income college students cope with problems and stay in school.

Under financial pressure, low-income students often take fewer classes and try to work longer hours.  Single Stop USA helps low-income students apply for a range of benefits, such as Pell Grants, food stamps, earned-income tax credits and child care aid, so they can stick to their studies.

“There are lots of resources and services, but they aren’t coordinated,” (co-founder Elisabeth) Mason said. “We seek to become a one-stop shop, where students can be comprehensively screened.”

The nonprofit has offices at 18 community colleges in five states, and is expanding.

Under pressure to raise graduation rates, colleges are working with nonprofits to help students cope with unexpected crises, notes the Hechinger Report.

In pain from a decaying tooth, Job Asiimwe nearly quit Bunker Hill Community College months away from graduation. Using a foundation-funded Dreamkeepers grant, the college paid for Asiimwe’s dental work.

“Finances are the number one reason students drop out. It’s not just school finances — it’s life finances,” said Lauren Segal, president and CEO of Scholarship America. “It’s the day-to-day life experiences that are the hurdles students have to get over. And those don’t have to be big things. They can be small things — say, their daycare goes up $100 a month, and that’s the make-or-break number.”

At Mount Hood Community College near Portland, Ore., employees have found students sleeping in campus restrooms or in their cars. Mount Hood lets students check out books, laptops and calculators if they can’t afford them, runs a food pantry and provides bus passes for students in emergencies.