Community colleges often are “the one chance a person has for gaining social mobility,” says Alicia Dowd, co-director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education, in a Huffington Post interview.
The idea that anyone can get ahead by hard work and smarts is important in the American psyche. Never mind that most students who start at a community college don’t finish and don’t end up with a degree or certificate. There’s a chance you’ll make it, it’s relatively cheap (compared to other colleges) and you don’t have to quit your job, move away from home, or be 18 years old to enroll there. Community colleges are a life raft for poor students and students who need a second (or third) chance to get an education or job skills.
Budget problems make it hard for students to get into the classes they need — or get the counseling they need to figure out how to complete a degree, Dowd tells interviewer Matthew Lynch.
Completion is a complex issue, because not all students want to earn certificates or degrees, she says.
The students who complete degrees tend to be those who are savvy about enrolling in the right courses, self-directed, resilient, and well supported financially and emotionally by their parents, families or significant others.
. . . One thing that’s being done is to create more detailed data bases of student academic progress to see which students are truly being lost from community colleges (and higher education more generally) and which are “stopping out” or “swirling” for good reasons, for example taking a higher paying job or taking classes at another college closer to their home.
New initiatives try to hold “colleges accountable for doing a better job in serving the students who do want to earn degrees and credentials,” Dowd says. Financial aid, matriculation and transfer policies are being redesigned.
Community college . . . should use the new, detailed data systems that are being built up in many states to tell their success stories better as wells to identify the gatekeeper courses that are blocking student progress.
Another strategy is to redefine completion in terms of short-term, modularized, or “stacked” credentials that students can build on over a career span of lifelong learning.
The college completion agenda “will generate real and equitable change only if it leads to improvements in the quality of education,” concludes Dowd. That will require more funds for “experimenting with new teaching and curricular strategies, learning from successes and failures, and participating in professional networks to evaluate and improve on new ideas.”
“Swirling” — multiple transfers between two-year and four-year colleges — is increasingly common in higher education, notes Inside Higher Ed. Swirlers risk running out of eligibility for Pell Grants under new rules, which limit students to 12 semesters.
Trident Technical College, in South Carolina, students who changed programs multiple times, or who enrolled after pursuing, but not earning, a degree at a for-profit college are among those who are most likely to have run out of eligibility, said Meg Howle, the college’s vice president for advancement.
About 540 of the college’s 22,748 students lost their Pell Grant eligibility and still returned this fall, Howle said. The college does not know how many lost eligibility and dropped out as a result.
Students who had been enrolled in college before but still needed remedial courses were also affected, because those students had used up more of their Pell Grant eligibility without earning credits that count toward a degree, Howle said.
Students who start at community colleges and transfer to four-year universities could run out of time, said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
About 4 percent of California State University students lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the 12-semester cap, said Michael Uhlenkamp, director of media relations. At Sacramento State University, some brand-new transfer students already had received 12 semesters of Pell aid, said Edward Mills, associate vice president for enrollment management. Some had lingered at community colleges. Others had “swirled” for too long.
“Freeway flyers” used to describe adjuncts who commute from campus to campus to teach classes. Now California students are “swirling” from college to college to get the classes they need, reports Kathy Baron on Thoughts on Public Education.
Michael Cash rides his Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R from San Diego City College to Miramar Community College, 17 miles away, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays he adds Mesa Community College. He has classes from 8 in the morning to 10 at night.
After five years active duty in the Army, and another five as a Defense Department contractor in Iraq, Cash enrolled in San Diego City College at the beginning of 2010. He plans to earn a bachelor’s degree without borrowing.
“Being a new student, I was put at the bottom of the registration line. I was wait listed for every class I wanted, and almost didn’t get any classes,” said Cash. “I just crashed classes to try to get anything I could.”
That means he just showed up on the first day of class, and every other day for the next two weeks, hoping that someone who was actually registered for the class wouldn’t show up so he could get their spot. Not every wait-listed student has the discipline to keep coming back day after day with no guarantee, but Cash’s persistence paid off.
The following semester when two of the classes he needed overlapped, Cash hit the road.
Nearly 10 percent of the state’s community college students “swirl” between multiple campuses.
. . . Shaneeka Thomas estimates she spends about $85 a week on gas driving to two campuses and her job.
. . . “My teacher is pretty cool and my classmates are great,” said Thomas. “But at the same time, I’m a part-time employed student, so the gas and the time that it takes to come here twice a week, it drains my budget significantly.”
Some professors let extra students into class, so they won’t have to go on a wait list or swirl. Cash has taken one class with 50 students. “The professor only let each student speak once per class.”
California community colleges’ Student Success Task Force has been promoting its plan to give priority to new and motivated students who choose an academic plan and make progress toward completion.
“Policies that enable students to wander around the curriculum, withdraw and repeat classes multiple times, avoid services that could steer them along a productive pathway, and accumulate an unlimited number of units are a disservice to enrolled students and to those who can’t get into the system for lack of available classes,” according to the task force.
Students like Cash would be able to register in classes while long-time students who aren’t progressing toward a credential would go on the wait list.
More community college students are making it to their second year, according to ACT, Inc. data. But college retention rates — the percentage of first-year, full-time students who return to the same institution for their second year of college — are declining at private four-year colleges.
Some 56 percent of students at public two-year colleges return for the second year, a record high. The retention rate at private four-year colleges has dropped to 72 percent; for the first time ever, that’s lower than the rate at public four-year schools, which is 74 percent.
The study doesn’t track students who enroll at a different institution after their first year. Increased “swirling” — moving from one school to another — may account for the results.
In addition, the high costs of private colleges may be too much for students to handle, says ACT analyst Wes Habley.
“With many jobs gone and fewer new jobs available, high school graduates and newly unemployed workers may be seeking the fastest, least expensive route to gainful employment,” said Habley. “Two-year colleges tend to be less costly than four-year schools and offer programs that provide entry into specific jobs. Those factors may increase students’ motivation and incentive to come back for their second year.”
Two-year public colleges, according to Habley, also tend to be more responsive to the marketplace than four-year institutions.
“Community colleges are typically more driven by local economic factors and employment needs than are four-year colleges and universities,” he said. “As a result, students can often see a more direct link from the program to a job.”
According to ACT’s 2010 report, What Works in Student Retention, colleges are relying more on remedial classes, study groups and tutoring and less on academic advising and first-year transition programs to help students succeed.
The long-term trend is clear, said Habley. “Many students still enter college unprepared to succeed, and retention and completion rates haven’t changed a lot over the years.”
You Can’t Get There From Here shouldn’t be the answer students get when they try to transfer credits — all their credits — to another college, writes Peter P. Smith of the American Enterprise Institute. These days, a majority of students transfer at least once. Some take the Sarah Palin route, “swirling” between community colleges and four-year universities.
Some $30 billion is wasted each year as transfer students repeat courses they’ve already taken, Smith writes. Forty million Americans are in the “some college” category: They’ve given up short of a credential.
A Gates Foundation study found that more than 50 percent of all annual higher-education spending in the United States, including financial aid, funds services for people who never receive a certificate or degree.
As president of the Community College of Vermont (CCV) in the 1970s, Smith had to fight to get state universities to accept graduates’ credits, which were based on “learning outcomes.” A deal was negotiated:
CCV graduates would be allowed to enroll and participate as juniors in the programs for which they had prepared. If they were successful academically, then CCV would work with the senior institution to create a better translation of our credits to the receiving college’s degree structure. If our graduates were not successful, then we would go back to the drawing board and redesign our program.
By requiring extra coursework, colleges exact a “transfer tax” on incoming students, Smith writes. They’d have to give up that revenue in a streamlined system.
Articulation agreements between community colleges systems and four-year institutions don’t improve transfer rates, a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found. Low-income and minority students have the hardest time navigating the academic bureaucracies.
We need a “systematic way of creating, maintaining, and displaying course equivalencies at the national level,” Smith writes. He envisions an academic EZ Pass.
First, there would have to be a consistent commitment to standards that govern learning outcomes and their assessment, overseen by the accrediting agencies. Second, using recently developed software, institutions would agree to accept credit from courses successfully completed at other accredited colleges at full value, pending the student’s performance in the follow-on course.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has agreed to order a study of streamlining college transfers, reports the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.