How to Improve Community College Graduation Rates

2-year colleges are adapting to meet their students’ needs — and seeing results

What does it take to improve community college graduation rates?

According to a New York Times article, research shows that community college graduation rates can improve if certain specific steps are taken, like the following:

  1. Providing more guidance from advisers.
  2. Avoiding the swamp of remedial or developmental classes. Instead, pair such classes with credit-bearing classes.
  3. Providing more financial support.

Community Colleges Are Changing

Some community colleges are adapting and, as a result, are seeing marked improvements.

Thomas Bailey, Professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University and Director of the Community College Research Center, was quoted in the Times article,”College leaders are embracing a reform movement that calls for a fundamental overhaul of the structure of community colleges.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 25%  of first-time, full-time students entering public community colleges graduate within three years.

Some experts dispute that figure, since many students study part-time and will consequently take longer to complete their degree. But, most agree that community colleges need to do more to serve their students well.

Rethinking Everything

As researchers and administrators analyzed the reasons for which students were dropping out, the need for fundamental reform became clearer, if the goal was to get more students to graduate. Rather, it was time to “rethink everything about their institutions,” said Suzanne Walsh, Deputy Director of postsecondary education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed to community colleges.

“Rethinking everything” has meant reforming community colleges into more structured environments, requiring fewer courses and also providing more intensive help from advisers to ensure that students move along guided pathways to complete their degrees.

Although the average annual tuition at community colleges is only $3,430, cost is a problem for some students. Especially if they use up their financial aid taking developmental or remedial classes—which are not credit bearing and do not help students progress toward a degree.

Yet, research has shown that students who bypass developmental courses can pass regular credit-bearing classes. Some schools—like the 13 community colleges in Tennessee’s system—have adopted a co-requisite model in which students are enrolled in a class for which they receive credit and a remediation class to help them complete it.

For more on what the Gates Foundation is doing to improve the effectiveness of community colleges, visit its Completion by Design site.



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