Reform Community College

If community colleges are going to be the new pathway to the middle class, they have a lot of work to do, according to a new study.

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They offer degrees that can help low-income and first-generation students gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market, yet for years community college graduation rates have remained low. Despite research showing reforms that can improve those rates, most colleges haven’t put those changes in place, the new report shows.

For example, a recent wave of research suggests that placement exams are ineffective at judging whether students are ready for college-level work–yet 87% of community college students say they are still required to take these exams.

Even more striking, the report found that 40% of students who had an A average in high school were placed into remedial classes.

And while there is increasing evidence that remedial education courses act more as obstacles than gateways to graduation, the vast majority of colleges still adhere to that traditional model.

Still, Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community College reveals that some colleges have shown significant improvement using models that could be fairly easily replicated and don’t require loads more money.

“There’s been a lot of innovation, and sometimes it comes across as though things are really changing, but this report is really a reality check,” said Evelyn Waiwaiole, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, which produced the report and released it last month.

Most students–86% of the 70,000 surveyed–believed they were prepared for college when they first enrolled. Nonetheless, 67% tested into “developmental education”–remedial courses that students are required to take before they can enter college classes. Students don’t earn credits for most developmental education classes, but they still have to pay for them. Developmental education classes often eat up the financial aid provided by federal Pell grants.

Students also seemed unaware of whether they were earning enough credits to graduate, the survey showed. While 76% of students believed they were on track to graduate on time, in fact only 39% of community college students earn any degree within six years.

That confusion could be due to a continuing lack of counseling for a big chunk of students. Even though studies have shown the necessity of structured support for community college students, 56% of students said they had never met with an academic adviser who helped them to create a plan to reach their academic goals.

The report highlighted some places where reforms were helping. At some colleges, students were more likely to pass introductory English and math courses when high school GPA (rather than a test) was used to decide whether to put them into remedial courses.

Read more at the Hechinger Report.