Improving community college completion rates is difficult and expensive, concludes a new study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia.
Community colleges are under pressure to increase completion rates and efficiency, write Clive Belfield, Peter M. Crosta and Davis Jenkins. But “many students who fail to complete are far short of the program requirements.” Some strategies will provide more degrees for the dollar.
In the community college they studied, “there would be substantial gains in completion rates and efficiency from helping students transfer with an award and from helping students with 30+ credits to graduate.” However, persuading more students to persist is
“both an expensive and inefficient reform.”
It’s important to understand the whole college process, not just inputs and outputs, write Belfield and Jenkins in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.
Improving the quality of instruction in introductory courses won’t help if students can’t access high-demand majors, such as nursing. Pouring resources into one early intervention won’t help if other programs lose resources and decline in quality as a result. And increasing retention rates won’t improve efficiency if it leads students to drop out in their second year instead of their first. In fact, improved retention requires more upper-level courses (which tend to cost more) and makes colleges look less efficient if graduation rates remain unchanged.
If community colleges can find ways to improve students’ college readiness — perhaps by collaborating with feeder high schools — they’ll improve their efficiency significantly.
Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.
Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.
Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.
Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.
For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)
The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.
However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.
California community colleges will give enrollment priority to new students and those following a course of study leading to a credential under a reform plan approved by the system’s board of governors Monday after a three-hour hearing, reports the Los Angeles Times. Students who’ve earned more than 100 credits will be last in line for classes and will not be eligible for fee waivers. Recreational and enrichments classes will pay their own way or be dropped.
Some protest the changes will make it harder for low-income, minority and part-time students to access community colleges.
The Legislature will consider the reforms, many of which require amending education codes.
Proposed by a state task force, the reform package aims to increase graduation and transfer rates.
Among the 22 recommendations are proposals requiring all colleges to use a single assessment for English and math skills and prioritizing registration and fee waivers for students who have concrete goals, such as a degree, certificate or transfer to a four-year college.
Course offerings and schedules would be aligned with student needs, including a focus on basic skills and classes needed to transfer. Campuses would also be required to publish score cards detailing their performance in such areas as completion rates.
New students will be required to go through orientation to help choose the right classes. That will require more funding for counselors and other student services. Many who spoke to the board doubted the money would be allocated.
Others spoke in support of the plan.
“I do believe this is the greatest opportunity this system has ever had to close the achievement gaps that exist in California’s community colleges,” said Eloy Oakley, superintendent and president of Long Beach City College.
While the reforms are an improvement, part-time students and those seeking a liberal education could be short-changed, argues a Los Angeles Times editorial.
All students would be required to articulate a goal by the end of the first year of college, and a full educational plan by the end of the third semester. In addition, the state would target its funding of the colleges to discourage them from offering courses that aren’t showing up in those educational plans.
. . . The mandate for educational plans should be based on the number of credits taken, not on a point in time. The colleges hope to persuade more students to enroll full time, because such students have higher graduation rates. But pushing a student who needs to work into full-time studies could be counterproductive.
In addition, the plan should give students more leeway to take courses outside their study plans, the Times editorializes. ”A computer student who wants to take a literature course to deepen her education should be encouraged to do so, as long as she doesn’t go beyond her allotted 100 credits. . . Colleges don’t just churn out degrees and certificates; they’re supposed to encourage students to think big and try new things.”
These colleges improved graduation rates, closed achievement gaps and changed lives, said the nonprofit. For example, Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas strengthened remedial education coursework and increased the college’s three-year completion rate to 24 percent from 10 percent over a four-year period.