This afternoon, the White House convened the first Community College Summit. (If you’re more cynical, then perhaps a better name for it would be the Conrad Consolation Summit since the gathering was the replacement prize after the North Dakota Democrat used budget games to take away the $12 billion that was originally supposed to go to this sector in the student loan legislation.) Jill Biden, who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, led the event, which also featured community college administrators, business leaders, policymakers, and others.
With two hours each for opening/closing speeches and discussion, the summit tried to cover a lot in a short amount of time. But here are a few observations on two of the topics covered. (You can see an agenda and event kit to host your own summit here.)
Pathway to Baccalaureate
There’s an inherent tension when discussing community colleges and getting students to eventually earn four-year degrees. On the one hand, the research shows that students who start at a school below their academic qualifications–a process known as “under matching”–are less likely to earn a four-year degree than their similar peers who started at an academically appropriate institution (see figure 7.2 of Crossing the Finish Line). That suggests that we don’t want to steer students toward a community college if they could handle a four-year institution.
On the other hand, students who do transfer from a two-year institution to a four-year college or university graduate at almost the same rates as freshmen who started there. (And at less selective four-year institutions, they actually graduate at higher rates than homegrown freshmen.) The similar bachelor’s degree graduation rates may be largely because someone who has made it through an associate’s program AND shown the wherewithal to transfer has displayed a degree of commitment and is likely to finish. But even if that is the case, it’s clear that providing transfer spots for students from community colleges is a good goal that can produce graduates.
But conversations about transfer shouldn’t just come at a community college summit. A successful transfer process ultimately rests with the institution accepting the student. Community colleges can do a lot to make sure that student is prepared, but a conversation about transfers requires a broader group.
Increasing Community College Completion
Because community colleges serve so many students with different goals, gauging their completion rates can be difficult. A given school might enroll a student who is fresh out of high school and hoping to transfer to a four-year school as quickly as possible, a displaced worker hoping to take a class or two and then find a new job, and someone returning to school after several years off to earn an associate degree. In those first two cases, a student may very well leave school before completing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And this doesn’t even touch on the issues around federal graduation rates, which only include full-time students attending school for the first time.
Measurement issues aside, there are several things community colleges can do to improve completion rates. For example, offering prerequisites at times that students can take them and providing enough seats in those classes are two crucial steps that help students avoid time wasted while they can’t get into needed courses.
But any significant improvement in completion rates at community colleges will have to involve remediation. Large percentages of students at community colleges already require remediation, and those numbers will only increase as some states have started moving all remedial classes out of four-year schools. These are huge roadblocks for students–if you can’t complete them and get into your college-level courses, you will never earn a degree.
Improving remediation means changing the way it’s currently taught. Right now, most remedial courses are semester-long and failing them requires repeating the whole thing. Students might take a placement test, but it is used to determine what remedial class they need. It’s an unforgiving setup full of wasted time.
Instead, remediation should be shorter and more personalized. Have students take exams that determine what math or reading/writing concepts they don’t understand and teach them just those skills. For this to work, remediation needs to abandon the course format and instead be presented in modules. This allows students to only complete the modules they need and skip the ones they don’t. And once a student completes a module they get credit for it, failing one doesn’t require significant repetition. Finally, breaking the bond between remediation and the typical course structure frees students to complete coursework as fast as they can. Remediation is a preparatory program–let students finish it as fast as they can so they can get to their actual coursework.
The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), has already worked with a number of community colleges on promising redesigns of remedial courses. Combining computer-based teaching, modules, and the other ideas described above, NCAT and schools have dramatically boosted completion rates in remedial courses.
The most dramatic results in these efforts can be seen in Tennessee. The Board of Regents there is working to redesign remedial courses at every single community college in the state and has already run successful pilots at a number of campuses. At Cleveland State Community College, the number of students who completed all their developmental courses increased from 55 percent to 74 percent. (You can read other results here and for more on how these programs work, read my paper about NCAT that Education Sector released in May.)
NCAT isn’t done with remedial math. It received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation* last year to work with more community colleges to redesign developmental courses. But the community college sector is still very large and any effort at nationwide change on a massive scale will also require some of these schools to be proactive and try exciting things with remediation on their own.
A Consolation Prize
As a consolation prize, a community college summit certainly isn’t worth anything near the $12 billion excised by Conrad. But hopefully it at least presented some opportunities for sharing important knowledge about improving student outcomes.
*Disclosure: The foundation also funds some of Education Sector’s work.