How Can Community Colleges Improve Degree Attainment?

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The bachelor’s degree has long been considered the cornerstone of student achievement at four-year institutions of higher learning throughout the U.S., while community colleges (CCs) are known for their shorter vocational programs. These paradigms, however, are in flux.

Currently, 22 states allow CCs to offer bachelor’s degrees. This is a shift aimed at meeting demand, as entry criteria for graduate careers are such that a two-year associate’s degree is no longer enough. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that the state will need approximately 1 million more college graduates to fill all of the upcoming positions anticipated by 2025.

In response to this, the California legislature has passed a law allowing CCs to offer courses leading to a bachelor’s degree — though not without resistance. The legislation was rejected twice before being allowed through. So what are the arguments against it?

The Question of Mission

One concern regards mission creep. Presently, CCs often serve the purpose of providing access to education for all. With this change, though, some worry that shorter individual courses might lose support to make way for more “prestigious” bachelor’s degree curricula.

Another big concern is that the cooperation between four-year colleges and CCs will morph into competition_._ While students are currently encouraged to explore career options through CC courses with a view to later transfer the credits to a bachelor’s course of study, the new system would allow students to complete the full bachelor’s program at a CC. While this would provide practical benefits to students (e.g., CCs often reside in the heart of local communities, saving students travel time and costs), some four-year public institutions have voiced concerns that this could result in a “turf war” over education options.

Although the objective is to increase accessibility and flexible options through lower-cost alternatives at CCs, cost is not the main factor involved when students fail to complete college. In fact, one of the primary reasons students fail to persist is a difficulty balancing school with work, family, and other commitments. Additionally, many CC students struggle to make informed decisions about their educational paths and navigate the higher education system. Thus, even students who pay no tuition at all still find it difficult to cross the finish line.

Some states with higher average tuition rates outperform their lower-tuition peers in terms of student success. For example, one analysis found that while retention and completion rates at California community colleges were above the national average, they were below the rates in Wisconsin and North Dakota, where tuition is two to three times as high.

Results of the 21st Century Scholars program in Indiana also indicate that cost is not the most critical issue to address when it comes to improving student outcomes. Even with this tuition-free program, only 13 percent of students were completing two-year courses of study at CCs. However, after the Indiana Commission for Higher Education implemented a coaching initiative for freshmen, first-year persistence increased by 8.8 percentage points.

As these cases show, regardless of the length of a degree program or the cost of tuition, higher education needs to be supplemented with additional resources to help students deal with real-life issues outside of school. Student coaching may be as important as academic tutoring and tuition assistance to help them achieve real success.

Improving Degree Attainment

So what can CCs do to ensure students are able to not only enroll, but also graduate from their selected courses of study with their degrees of choice?

To begin with, CCs have typically offered too many options; students can pick and choose the courses they find most appealing without any idea of what the end result will be. This creates a situation analogous to an “all you can eat” buffet, where people tend to have bigger eyes than stomachs and often put too much onto their plates.

Colleges can prevent this by offering students clear guided pathways to help them determine their end career goals first, then work backward to figure out the most efficient route through the required curricula. Students are much more likely to reach completion if they have a detailed map they can follow. For many, a college education should offer a direct path to graduation, not a meandering river of options — and it’s up to CCs to provide the academic GPS for students.

Moreover, evidence shows that students who enroll in corequisite college-level courses and receive additional support succeed at much higher rates than students taking remedial classes. The key to such success lies in implementing strategies to support students in taking on credit-bearing courses. Students can learn from one another, and a bit of friendly competition (and peer support) among corequisite colleagues can also help them make the grade.

Take, for example, the Tennessee Promise, a statewide program offering two years of free tuition to students who meet entry criteria. As part of the Promise model, students are provided with additional support for credit-bearing classes rather than remedial courses. This stands in contrast to the previous approach in which access to such courses would be dependent on these students catching up on needed skills before being allowed to earn credit. The model is in its early stages, but participating campuses report positive results.

And finally, according to a Stanford University School of Education study, students who receive life coaching as part of their degree programs are more likely to make it to graduation. This point may be particularly salient for CC students, who typically have to balance full- or part-time work with their studies and familial obligations. Providing these students with time management, self-advocacy, and other critical skills will help them reach graduation — and, thereby, increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders — much better than reducing or eliminating the cost of tuition alone.

Enabling students to define and meet their own academic goals today will prepare them for the careers that comprise the U.S economy of tomorrow. Four-year programs are tough no matter the institution, but with the right support in place, graduation is an achievable result for all.

About the Author: Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.