Community colleges “are asked to educate those students with the greatest needs, using the least funds, and in increasingly separate and unequal institutions,” concludes Bridging the Higher Education Divide, a report by a Century Foundation task force. “Racial and economic stratification is connected to unequal financial resources as well as to unequal curricula, expectations, and school cultures.”
Forty-four percent of U.S. college students attend community colleges. Most fail to earn a certificate or degree in six years. While more than 81 percent of entering students say they want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree, only 11 percent will succeed within six years.
Worse enrolling in community college appears to lower the odds of success for the best-qualified students. Among low-income students who’ve completed trigonometry, a mark of college readiness, 69 percent who start at a four-year college or university will earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 19 percent who start at a community college.
Funding should go to colleges that serve students with the greatest needs and produce the best outcomes, such as job placements, degrees and transfers to four- year institutions, the report argues.
In order to promote equity and avoid incentives for “creaming” the most well prepared students, funding should be tied to distance traveled and progress made—that is to say, consideration of where students start as well as where they end up. In addition, the number of nontraditional, minority and low-income students who achieve each of these outcomes should be monitored.
Higher education subsidies should be transparent, ”including public tax expenditures in the form of tax breaks for private donations, tax exemptions for endowment-derived income, and the like,” to show how little funding is going to colleges that serve less-advantaged Americans.
Creating clear transfer pathways would help community college students reach their goals, the report suggests. Two- and four-year institutions need to work together, perhaps creating joint bachelor’s degree programs. States should adopt “guaranteed transfer” policies.
Four-year colleges and universities should receive financial incentives for accepting low-income community college transfer students, the report recommends. Highly selective institutions should commit to accepting community college transfers for 5 percent of their junior class.
To attract middle-class achievers to community colleges, the report suggests creating “honors colleges” and using “early college” options on campus. At the same time, selective four-year colleges and universities should focus affirmative action programs on disadvantaged students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Community colleges “can become America’s quintessential ‘middle-class’ institutions — serving both those already in the middle-class and those aspiring to become part of it,” Bridging the Higher Education Divide concludes. But, right now, higher education is increasingly stratified. The most selective institutions primarily serve students from educated, well-to-do families, while open access institutions enroll, but usually don’t graduate, lower-income and working-class students.
Here’s the New York Times‘ take on the report.
Many Pell Grant recipients aren’t prepared for college and never complete a degree, writes Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Instead of denying Pell aid to remedial students, she proposes requiring evidence of readiness, such as SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).
“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” write researchers Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”
According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of getting a B- average in college, students should achieve about 1030 on the math and verbal SATs and earn a B average in high school (taking courses of at least “average” rigor). Using this benchmark, only 32 percent of students taking the SATs in 2009 were fully college-ready! On the other hand, to have a chance at a C average in college, they can get by with a 730 score on math and verbal, says the College Board.
But even getting a C average would be a struggle for these students, and the possibility of failure or dropping is out is all too likely.
Universities may already be designating remedial courses as college-level courses, even without the incentive of qualifying students for federal aid.
Pell Grant recipients don’t get a tuition break at many public and private universities, according to Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. Instead, universities compete for “the ’best and brightest’ students—and the wealthiest,” he writes in Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave Low-Income Ones Behind.
Pell recipients are forced to take on more debt and work more hours, reducing their odds of completing a degree, Burd writes. Nearly two-thirds of private colleges and universities ask students from families making $30,000 or less to pay more than $15,000 a year for college.
Federal programs to help disadvantaged students earn college degrees “show no major effects on college enrollment or completion,” concludes “Time for Change: A New Federal Strategy to Prepare Disadvantaged Students for College, a Brookings report. The U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, Upward Bound Math-Science, Student Support Services and others) cost $1 billion per year.
The TRIO programs are designed to augment disadvantaged students’ academic preparation, give them direct experience with college work, or help them apply to colleges or seek ﬁnancial aid. . . . Half a century and billions of dollars after these federal college-preparation programs began, we are left with mostly failed programs interspersed with modest successes. Preparing disadvantaged students for college is still a major challenge, with no well-tested solutions in sight.
Summer programs, mentoring, tutoring and parent involvement activities may boost college enrollment, the policy brief found. “These may be the threads from which we can begin to weave together a new kind of intervention program.”
Forced to end affirmative action preferences based on race and ethnicity, California’s state universities “have embedded themselves deeply in disadvantaged communities, working with schools, students and parents to identify promising teenagers and get more of them into college,” reports the New York Times. Outreach efforts start in middle school.
In Colorado, College Summit helps first-generation college students prepare for the challenges they’ll face on campus, reports Colorado Public Radio. That includes the psychological barriers.
Reporter: Self-doubt is just one obstacle – there are many others low-income students are vulnerable to: feeling alienated – from peers and family, not having the safety net their more affluent peers have, culture shock — even the fear of success. Ryan Ross, who oversees student retention at the Community College of Denver, says programs targeting first generation minority students, are crucial.
Ryan Ross: Without these programs, the dismal numbers that we see would be even worse.
Reporter: But he and others estimate that only about 10 to 15 percent of students who need these bridge-to-college support services are getting them. There’s just not enough money. It costs College Summit about $200 per student each session. And it pays off. Drop out rates are high among first generation students. But 77% of College Summit graduates carry on for a second year.
In “neighborhoods where kids don’t believe college is for them,” it makes a big difference to see somebody from the neighborhood who’s now a college graduate, says Ross. ”The light turns on that, hey, I can do this college thing too.”
Only 34 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds enroll in college, notes TIME. Eleven percent graduate. High achievers often enroll in less-selective colleges that have lower graduation rates and provide less support to students.
A 19-year-old living with parents and seeking a bachelor’s degree and a 29-year-old single mother looking for job credentials have very different needs that can’t be served by a single Pell Grant, argues Rethinking Pell Grants by a College Board study group headed by Sandy Baum and funded by the Gates and Lumina Foundations. The group calls for creating Pell Grant Y for students who start college before they turn 25 and Pell Grant A for older students.
The Y (for young) grant creates incentives to finish a degree quickly. Students could take as many credits as they wish, including a summer session. They could take up to 125 percent of the credits required by their program and earn up to 150 credits, the maximum for a bachelor’s degree. Transfer students would have to show academic progress to receive additional Pell funds.
“Another unit of progress” — such as a measure of prior learning or competency — could be substituted for the credit hour, the policy brief adds.
The Pell Grant A (for adults) would look very different, notes Inside Higher Ed.
Forty-four percent of Pell recipients are 25 and older. Only 56 percent complete a credential within six years, compared to 74 percent of younger students. Only 36 percent hope to earn a bachelor’s degree — and only three percent reach that goal. Most are seeking vocational certificates and associate degrees. Thirty-one percent enroll in for-profit colleges, twice the percentage of younger students.
Pell A would be tailored to students seeking job training.
Students would apply once, before beginning their programs, and eligibility would be based on income — with students eligible for a full grant, half a grant or nothing throughout their entire college careers. The size of the full Pell Grant would be set at a level that would allow community college students to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies. As with the Pell Grant Y, the size of individual awards would be determined based on the number of credits a student is pursuing.
Since many adult students would have to stop working to attend college full-time, the group also calls for the government to require or provide incentives for states to give students access to child-care assistance, Section 8 housing subsidies, food stamps and other welfare programs. And recipients of the Pell Grant A would also be required to get career counseling, which would be provided by the One-Stop Career Centers — which offer job training referrals, counseling and other employment services — created by the Workforce Investment Act.
Some older students want to earn a bachelor’s degree and some younger students are seeking vocational credentials, the report concedes. “However, age is highly correlated with these different paths.”
The study group also proposes creating federal education savings accounts for low-income students, starting at age 11 or 12, who are likely to be eligible for Pell aid in the future. Each year five to 10 percent of the Pell Grant would be deposited. It would be available when the student turns 17 to pay for higher education but would expire when the student turns 24.
Every year, students and their parents would receive a notification of how much money is in the account, as well as an estimate of the Pell Grant, state grants and tax benefits for which they would be eligible if they were already enrolled in college.
For $3.7 billion, the accounts would encourage young people from disadvantaged families to make college plans.
Low-income community college students may not get the support they need to persist and earn a credential, concludes a UCLA study, What Matters for Community College Success? Interviews with low-income female students — about half were single mothers and 80 percent were minorities — at an unnamed California college revealed taken-for-granted assumptions aren’t correct:
Assumption #1: The availability of programs equals students’ ability to access them.
Assumption #2: Students will seek support if they need it.
Assumption #3: Providing general information and advice is sufficient to aid students.
Low-income women often give up if they have trouble scheduling appointments, receive incorrect information, have unpleasant encounters with faculty or staff or fear negative judgments about their abilities, the study found.
Supplemental instructors — usually peer tutors — offer help to all students in courses with high failure rates. The SI coordinator said:
We don’t go to at-risk students. We go to at-risk classes, and that’s a big difference. … We found out that it takes that stigma away from saying, “Oh you think I’m stupid.”
Tutoring sessions are conducted in groups, giving students opportunities to network with their classmates. However, many low-income students have little time to spend on campus because they’re juggling jobs and family responsibilities.
Many community college students juggle classes and jobs while struggling to pay the rent and the babysitter, buy textbooks and put gas in the car. On some campuses, there’s help for low-income students, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In 1998, “Joanne” dropped out of the Borough of Manhattan Community College because she couldn’t afford the subway fare. When she came back to BMCC in 2011, after losing her job, it was very different. Single Stop USA had set up benefits counseling on campus.
She walked in a Pell Grant recipient, and walked out equipped with food stamps, transportation vouchers, and child-care benefits.
. . . Right in the middle of campus, between her classes, she had a 15-minute appointment with an electronic evaluation process facilitated by a knowledgeable counselor who equipped her with the money and support it seems she needed to make a degree possible. This spring, she will complete her associate degree.
Single Stop has offices at 17 community colleges around the country. In the last year, the nonprofit helped 20,000 students collect $38-million in benefits. For every $1 the program costs, it brings $14 in benefits students wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Single Stop hasn’t proven — yet — that its services boost completion rates, writes Goldrick-Rab. But it’s shown the community college can be “a point of connection as well as education.”
No online lecture can equal “the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person,” says Darryl Tippens, the provost of Pepperdine University.
Arthur C. Brooks’ no-frissons, $10,000 bachelor’s degree “was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made,” he writes in the New York Times.
After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. The year culminated in money problems, considerably less than a year of credits, and a joint decision with the school that I should pursue my happiness elsewhere. Next came what my parents affectionately called my “gap decade,” during which time I made my living as a musician.
Ready for school in his late 20s, he discovered Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. , a virtual college with no residence requirements. Edison “banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.”
I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.
After spending $10,000 on his bachelor’s degree, Brooks invested $5,000 in a master’s at a local university while working full time. Only as a student in a residential PhD program did he endure “the standard penury,” but he completed three degrees with no debt.
He became a tenured professor in behavioral economics at Syracuse University and now is president of the American Enterprise Institute.
. . . my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.
Higher ed’s bubble is about to burst, writes Brooks. Many people must make a “cost-effective college investment” or forego higher education. “The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream,” Brooks writes. “That dream is the opportunity to build a life through earned success. That starts with education.”
Amy Alkon writes: “Had my parents not paid, I might have done what I advise kids who come from poor families to do (when I talk at a school) — go to a good community college like Santa Monica college for two years, gotten great grades . . . and then transferred to a better, four-year school.”
Brooks, the son of professors, is an outlier, not an example of the typical nontraditional student, writes James M. Patterson on Minding the Campus.
With state funding often failing to keep up with enrollment growth, community colleges have struggled in the past decade, concludes a U.S. Treasury report, The Economics of Higher Education. Meanwhile, for-profit college enrollment has soared.
Community colleges depend on state funding, notes the Huffington Report. State funding has fallen behind enrollment gains, caught up, then lagged from 1999 to 2009, according to the report.
In 2009, community colleges received approximately $6,450 per FTE (full-time equivalent) student, only slightly higher than the $6,210 in 1999,
According to the report, the funding decline for public colleges and universities bottomed out in 2005, then slightly increased before dropping again in 2008.
Because of the budget squeeze, community colleges are pushed to either raise tuition or or to limit class size, and often choose the latter, leading to a correlating spike in for-profit college enrollment. According to the report, community colleges are “more likely to serve low-income and first-generation student populations than four-year schools, and these students now constitute the bulk of the student population at for-profit schools.”
Both community colleges and for-profit colleges primarily serve low-income and first-generation students, the report found. When public colleges put students on wait lists, the for-profits expand quickly to meet the demand. While completion rates are low for community college students, graduation rates are high for students in for-profit vocational programs of two years or less. And there are no wait lists.
Promising low-income eighth graders federal aid to pay future college expenses could motivate them to prepare for college, enroll and persist, predicts Accelerating College Knowledge: Examining the Feasibility of a Targeted Early Commitment Pell Grant Program, an analysis by Robert Kelchen and Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Students who qualify for a free school lunch in middle school are very likely to qualify for a Pell Grant in college — if they enroll, the study finds.
The persistently low college enrollment and completion rates of youth from poor families are partly attributable to their uncertainty about whether college is affordable. In the current system, concrete information about college costs arrives at the end of high school and is only available to those who complete a complex application. Evidence suggests this timing affects students’ motivation and ability to adequately prepare for college.
Simplifying the eligibility process to make an early Pell promise would increase the program’s costs by approximately $1.5 billion annually, researchers predict. However, “benefits would exceed the costs by approximately $600 million.”
For years now, philanthropists have guaranteed college aid to low-income students who complete high school, notes Inside Higher Ed. Recently, some towns and school districts have launched “promise” programs, which guarantee “some amount of college money to students who meet certain prerequisites.”
The researchers estimated that the guaranteed program would increase high school completion rates by about 10 percent, and that college retention and completion rates would increase by another 3 percent.
Since more educated workers earn more and pay higher taxes, an early Pell promise would more than pay for itself, the study concludes.
Grants to low-income students had little lasting impact on their performance, concludes a MDRC study at Borough of Manhattan Community College and Hostos Community College, both in New York City.
Based on their enrollment and completion levels, study participants received grants of up to $1,300 for each of two semesters, and some received a similar-sized grant for a third (summer) semester. In each term, a student received $200 for registering for six or more credits, another $450 if still enrolled by the middle of the term, and $650 for achieving a grade of C or better (or the equivalent in developmental courses) in at least six credits.
Students who received the performance-based grants were likelier to enroll for that term, compared to the control group. But a year after students received grants, the average recipient hadn’t earned more credits or registered for more semesters.
“This suggests that while the program was effective when students were eligible for scholarships, the effects on enrollment and credits earned dissipated after the program ended,” the authors write. (The relatively small number of grant recipients at Hostos, a much smaller institution where the students are older and the program was housed in a student services division of the college, did accumulate more credits than their peers did, the authors note.)
While “bare bones” grants may not work, other forms of aid show promise at other colleges, said Reshma Patel, project and data manager for the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration Project. Studies are testing the effect of offering advising and tutoring services and larger scholarships. ”We have had consistent findings across the sites, in terms of improvements in credit accumulation,” she said.