Some students who want a four-year degree raise the odds of success by starting at a community college, concludes Understanding the College Dropout Population, a Calder working paper by Erin Dunlop Velez of the American Institutes of Research. That’s especially true of those who are the first in their families to attend college.
Conventional wisdom says starting at community college lowers success odds, notes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report. In 2009, Bridget Terry Long and Michal Kurlaender estimated students who began at community colleges were 14.5 percent less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees within 9 years compared to similar students who started at four-year institutions.
“About 70 percent of four- year college drop-outs have a higher predicted probability of success beginning at a four-year college,” Velez writes. “But for the other 30% of the sample, their predicted probability of bachelor’s degree attainment would have been higher had they started at a two-year college. This is particularly true for first-generation college students, about 40% of which would have been more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree had they begun at a two-year college.”
Completion rates are low at Indiana’s public two-year colleges, reports the state Commission for Higher Education. The six-year completion rate for students seeking certificates or degrees is 28.2 percent. That includes transfers and students who earned a lower-level credential than originally sought.
Two-year public colleges spend an average of $31,369 for each degree produced, half the per-degree cost of four-year colleges and universities.
At Ivy Tech, the state community college system, the cost per degree is $30,120. Ivy Tech’s six-year completion rate — any credential at any campus — is 27.7 percent for full-time students and 20.8 percent for part-timers.
Only 15.7 percent of blacks who start at Ivy Tech have earned a credential within six years, compared to 26.8 percent of Hispanics, 29.6 percent of whites and 35.7 percent of Asians.
At Indiana’s four-year colleges and universities, the six-year completion rate is 68.6 percent. That includes any degree at any campus.
Ohio community colleges are trying to strengthen counseling to lower the high dropout rate, reports NPR’s StateImpact Ohio.
“College is an intimidating place for students, particularly for first generation students or returning students who make up a lot of our community college population,” says Suzanne Cox, a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College.
More than 60 percent of Tri-C students attend part-time. Cox says students tend to be older than traditional college students, and many juggle school with a full time job and caring for their children or parents.
. . . “Having that connection with someone who cares, who says I’m here for you, I’ll encourage you. If you need me, here’s my card, just that simple act of encouraging someone is really, really important,” Cox says.
But as much as she tries, Cox says she doesn’t always have much time to build a relationship with every student she advises. Students are required to attend orientation and see a counselor when they first enroll, but after that it’s up to them to seek out academic advising when they need it. Some may see an advisor only once during their entire college experience.
Only 20 percent of first time, full time, two-year college students complete an associate’s degree within three years. Community colleges are trying to raise graduation rates, says Melinda Mechur Karp, a researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “Advising is a really critical component.”
Counseling centers at community colleges “don’t have enough staff and they don’t have enough funds,” Karp says. The median caseload is 441 students per counselor, according to a 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association.
Some two-year colleges are “turning to online academic program planning tools that will send a red flag to an advisor when a student is veering off track,” reports State Impact Ohio. Many require new students to attend orientation or a “college success” class.
Dubious about President Obama’s plan to rate colleges’ value, community college leaders grilled U.S. Education officials at the Community College National Legislative Summit, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Linking college ratings to federal aid raises will be challenging, admitted Jeff Appel, a deputy undersecretary of education.
Under Mr. Obama’s plan, colleges that performed well in the ratings would be rewarded with additional federal dollars while colleges that performed poorly would lose some aid. Skeptics fear such a system would punish colleges that serve many low-income and minority students and would encourage open-access institutions to tighten their entrance criteria or dumb down their standards.
More federal dollars could flow to selective colleges with wealthier students said Peter L. Mora, president of Atlantic Cape Community College, in New Jersey.
Pauline T. Jaske, board chair of Waukesha County Technical College, in Wisconsin, suggested that the administration place less emphasis on a college’s graduation rate and more on whether its students achieve the goals they came to college with—transferring to a four-year institution, earning a job promotion, or simply gaining additional skills. “If they reached that goal, that’s a success,” she argued.
Mr. Appel said the department was considering using the results of alumni surveys as a measure in its ratings, saying satisfaction scores could be “potentially useful” to consumers.
Michele Bresso, associate vice president for government relations at Kern County Community College, in California, asked for relief from redundant and sometimes conflicting reporting requirements.
There may be streamlining opportunities, said Mr. Appel, despite the “triad” of federal, state and accreditor oversight.
The White House plans to release a draft rating system in the spring and publish the first ratings in the 2014-15 academic year. Then the president will ask Congress to link federal aid to the ratings.
The “ambitious timeline” is troubling, said Karin M. Hilgersom, president of Sullivan County Community College, in New York. She asked how the administration would get results that aren’t “garbage in and garbage out,” given the shortcomings of federal outcomes data.
Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and designer of its college rankings, also questioned the Obama plan at a federal symposium, reports the Washington Post. Who’s in charge? he asked. How will decisions be reviewed?
How should community colleges be rated when many of their students are not really seeking degrees but instead are aiming for certificates or just taking a couple of random classes? And of those who are seeking degrees, many transfer to four-year schools without getting an associate’s degree. Shouldn’t that be considered a success? If so, how will the government track it?
If outcomes are not properly measured, “things start to get more dicey for community colleges,”said Patrick Perry, a vice chancellor of California’s huge community college system.
Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students go to college, but graduation rates are low. In an Education Next forum, Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and Brookings’ Budgeting for National Priorities Project, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, discuss what to do about it.
Target federal aid to low-income, college-ready students, argues Sawhill. Needy students who are likely to complete a degree could get more money, if well-to-do families gave up their tax subsidies and low performers weren’t eligible for Pell.
According to 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, only a small fraction of high school seniors are at or above proficiency in math and reading: 26 percent and 28 percent, respectively. This lack of preparation makes it difficult for them to do college-level work. For example, of younger students enrolling in college in 2003–04 with a high school grade-point average (GPA) below 2.0, only 16 percent had received a degree six years later, while 84 percent had not. The question we need to ask is whether taxpayers should foot the bill for students whose odds of success are so low.
Currently, Pell Grants are available to anyone with a high school diploma or GED. That doesn’t predict the ability to do college-level work, Sawhill writes.
Linking Pell to academic performance denies help to those who need help most, responds Goldrick-Rab. Instead, she proposes increasing the size of grants so low-income students can work less and study more.
While 54 percent of wealthy Americans complete college, only 9 percent of low-income Americans earn a degree, Goldrick-Rab writes. The college gap is growing.
The K–12 system remains overwhelmingly unequal, and chaining Pell eligibility to it even further ensures that both ends of the educational process remain unequally distributed. It transforms the Pell Grant from a policy aimed at transforming lives to one that simply rewards students lucky enough to be born into situations where their families are able to seize good high-school educations for them.
When it was first created, “the Pell Grant covered nearly 90 percent of the costs of attending a public college or university,” writes Goldrick-Rab. Today, the maximum $5,550 grant covers 30 percent of the average costs at state universities.
President Obama has proposed rating colleges and universities by “value.” One measure would be the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients. Linking Pell to performance would make colleges look a lot better.
After growing very rapidly, the Pell program is running a $1.7 billion budget surplus this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Don’t give up on the longshots, writes Matt Reed. “Open-door public colleges exist to give people options.”
By 2016, California community college students will need to meet academic performance standards to receive tuition waivers, reports Inside Higher Ed.
The fee waivers eliminate the relatively affordable tuition of $46 per credit that the system’s 112 colleges charge. But to remain eligible under the change, students will be required to maintain a 2.0 GPA for two consecutive terms. They will also lose access to the state subsidy if they fail to complete half of the credits they attempt in a semester.
Colleges plan to increase counseling services as part a series of changes designed to improve graduation and transfer rates. In addition to raising standards for waivers, incoming students will receive priority enrollment if they attend orientation sessions and develop education plans.
Tuition is waived for about 40 percent of the state’s 2.6 million community college students, reports the Los Angeles Times.
“We will do everything in our power to help students on financial aid succeed,” said community colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris, “but students need to know that they have a responsibility to keep up their end of the bargain.”
Restricting fee waivers will hurt low-income students who face many challenges, said Rich Copenhagen, a College of Alameda student and past president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. “If you cut our fee waivers, they’re probably going to be gone from community colleges forever.”
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.
Forty-six percent of Latinos who graduated from high-scoring public high schools enrolled in a community college, according to a USC study. That compares to 23 percent of their black classmates, 19 percent of Asians and 27 percent of white students. White and Asian students are much more likely to enroll at a four-year university.
Graduation rates are much lower for students who start at community colleges.
Table 1. College-Attendance Rates of California High School Graduates by Public Higher Education System and Race/Ethnicity, 2010
Community College Attendance Rate
CSU Attendance Rate
UC Attendance Rate
South Pasadena is known for excellent public schools. Of South Pasadena High’s 2010 Latino graduates, 71 percent went straight to community college, reports KPCC. Only about a third of the school’s white and Asian graduates that year attended community college.
“Perhaps certain kinds of college pathways are promoted for different types of students,” said George Washington University education researcher Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, who authored the study. “We know that tracking is real. We know that differential expectations for academic performance based on things like race and class are real.”
Lower-income students are more likely to choose to a low-cost community college, especially if their parents don’t understand financial aid options.
From Colorado: For low-income students, getting into college is only half the battle. Graduating is a challenge.
Currently, only 28.7 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate in three years from the state’s two-year colleges.
“Everybody agrees we got to do better,” said Jim Rose, executive director of the state’s Community College Commission. “It’s not good enough to get these students in the door and then let them languish in remedial education or spend all this time just swirling around and never gaining any real credential or degree.”
“Speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down,” according to some professors, reports Timothy Pratt in The Atlantic.
Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online.
Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down.
. . . “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.
The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education – mostly university professors — will meet in January to discuss the rise of online courses and performance-based funding.
If states fund universities based on measures such as graduation rates, rather than enrollment, faculty will face a “subtle pressure” to pass more students, says Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors.
Only 56.1 percent of college students earn a degree within six years. President Obama has called for increasing the number of college graduates to make the U.S. first in the world in educated workers.