Report: Community Colleges Can Improve Completion Rates With More Student Guidance

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the number of jobs that require some kind of postsecondary degree continue to grow, community colleges, which serve a large portion of today’s students, are struggling with low graduation rates. By addressing the “structural and motivational barriers” that inhibit community college students from completing degrees—specifically, limited career advising and guidance—schools will be better equipped to help students earn credentials, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution.

“Extensive evidence indicates that completing a credential or degree beyond a high school diploma, from an associate’s degree all the way up to a doctorate, improves employment outcomes and earnings for individuals. Yet, community colleges, as the institutions of higher education that serve a large share of low-income students, graduate less than 40 percent of students within six years,” Elizabeth Levesque, a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the think tank and author of the report, said.  

Levesque wrote that low completion rates at community colleges is a concern for every stakeholder in higher education, from students looking for a “pathway to financial security” to employers relying on an “appropriately trained workforce” to policymakers “responsible for creating a strong workforce capable of driving economic prosperity.”

“Community colleges hold enormous potential for students across the United States,” Levesque wrote. “Realizing this full potential is vital for students to obtain the education and training they need to pursue their career goals, obtain good-paying jobs, and contribute to a vibrant American economy.”

And while there have been efforts to get more information on graduates’ earnings and employment rates to prospective community college students to better help them make informed decisions, Levesque argued that there are still a number of “structural and motivational barriers” that continue to deter community college students from completing degrees that need greater focus.

Structurally, Levesque argued that many community colleges are currently designed in a way—which she refers to a “cafeteria-style”—that requires students to make a myriad of important decisions with little guidance, such as what to major in, whether or not to transfer to a four-year program, and what courses to take to satisfy program requirements. Even though many community colleges do provide students with some type of support, it can be complicated to access, she wrote.

“Confronted with an overwhelming number of options, many students do not know how to progress from enrollment to program completion, lacking sufficient support in charting a course and adhering to their plans,” Levesque wrote. “As a result, students invest time and money in classes that may not feel related to their own goals and may not adequately satisfy specific program requirements. In this environment, students may not see the value in remaining enrolled.”

Instead, Levesque wrote that students benefit greatly from a “guided pathways” model, which differs from the “cafeteria model” in that it features “clearly structured programs and extensive advising support.” In this model, schools are focused on defining academic programs and trajectories, and providing career counseling immediately to students while advisers track students’ progress in their individual programs. Levesque cited the success of City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, which saw its students’ graduation rates double after adopting this model, and encouraged community college leaders to read the research on this program and consider adopting it.

Levesque also argued that there are motivational barriers associated with a “cafeteria-style” structure, such as a disconnect for students “between their coursework and their own lives,” that can also be resolved with structured interventions.

“Without sufficient knowledge of the programs of study available or how to choose courses related to a particular academic or career path, students may enroll in courses that have little relevance to their career goals,” Levesque wrote. “...Perceiving little to no ‘real-world’ application of their coursework, students may decide that remaining enrolled in coursework is a bad investment, opting instead to drop out of college to join the workforce immediately.”

Levesque suggested that to address this motivational issue, community colleges engage students in expectancy value interventions, which “prompt students to connect their coursework to their lives” by asking them to write short essays about how the topics they are studying apply to their lives outside the classroom, or a similar task.

“When students, particularly those with low expectations, identify the relevance of their coursework to their lives, they perform better and express more interest in the subject they are studying. Yet, this is precisely the type of connection that can be difficult to make in cafeteria-style settings, where paths of study are unclear and resources are confusing to navigate,” Levesque wrote. “Structural reforms can help students identify and progress along clear pathways from enrollment to graduation.”

In addition, Levesque recommended that schools ”leverage emerging technologies to reduce structural barriers,” adding that sending text messages to students about course requirements during the summer can serve as jumping off point for schools looking to improve outreach efforts.

“Moving forward, we must invest in innovative, evidence-based solutions, enable students to complete postsecondary credentials and degrees, and ultimately help them achieve their academic and career goals,” Levesque wrote.


Publication Date: 10/10/2018

James C | 10/10/2018 10:42:48 AM

I worked at a community college. There was a push to get as many last minute students as possible in August. These last minute students were often unprepared academically, had no concrete plans on what they were doing, filled out their FAFSAs with all 0's and seemed obsessed regarding when they were getting their refund check. After refunds in the third week about 20% of students just walked away. There needs to be more accountability for these institutions. They serve a good purpose but often are more concerned with filling seats than with graduating students.

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