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A clearer pathway to student success

New book offers a prescription for improving community college outcomes
University Business, August 2015
Community College Research Center Director Thomas Bailey's new book is "Redesigning America’s Community Colleges."
Community College Research Center Director Thomas Bailey's new book is "Redesigning America’s Community Colleges."

As director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, Thomas Bailey is the nation’s preeminent scholar of community colleges.

After recognizing that myriad reform efforts directed at community colleges showed little evidence of improved outcomes, he and his CCRC colleagues, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins, set out to learn why and what can be done about it. The result is Redesigning America’s Community Colleges (Harvard University Press, 2015).

What they suggest is a system of change that involves not only redesigning but to some extent rethinking the purpose of community college.

“Community colleges were set up to have low-cost access, and they’ve done that,” Bailey says. “But the next step is to go beyond enrollment and figure out what students’ goals are, and help them reach those goals.

As I read your suggested reforms, I was thinking, “That piece will work, but only if this piece works.” It’s like a puzzle where you don’t get the full picture unless all the pieces are there.

That’s an accurate perception. One reason we’ve seen so much reform without much effect is precisely because people have been trying to focus on one thing, while other factors thwart that progress. It becomes too complicated, there are too many options, things don’t work together very well.

We use a cafeteria metaphor to describe that—everything is there, and students are pretty much on their own for accessing those services. There’s not much help for them to do that.

I’ve heard students complain about the lack of guidance they get when they apply to a community college.

One problem is that the counselor-to-student ratio is much too low. It’s like one counselor to a thousand students. That’s a typical ratio for community colleges.

Students sign up and enroll in courses, but they also need to know how those courses fit together, whether those are the most appropriate courses, whether those courses will lead to a student’s goals—and what are those goals anyway? These are all questions that students have and they are not given much help in answering those.

Two-year and four-year schools have evolved somewhat differently. Why?

We’re operating in an environment that was created in a very different social and economic and technological context. Back then very few people finished high school, and fewer went to college. Yet those who did had resources that others didn’t.

Now we think everybody needs to go to college and needs to complete some kind of degree in college. But we live with a legacy of two sets of institutions which have very different governance. They have different cultures. They have different human resource policies. They have different financing systems. They have different systems of accountability.

And a lot of students going to community college aren’t coming right out of high school. They’ve been out in the workplace. We need to be thinking about policies and structures that will help those students as well.

Much of what community colleges do now is providing remedial education.

That’s a huge issue. In some colleges 90 percent of students are recommended or assigned to remediation. Research suggests it hasn’t been a very successful process, but it’s still the main resource in the community college intake process.

A student arrives and we give them an assessment. They have assessed weaknesses in, say, math and reading, so we give them a remedial courses in those areas—pretty much the same ones they didn’t do well in back in high school.

We should change our idea of what remediation is in the context of the intake process. The first part of that is helping students figure out what they want to do. If they don’t want to go into the STEM fields, for example, do they still need to take Calculus? If you can help students identify goals, you can design programs that allow them to pursue those goals.

So students can begin studying their chosen fields with remediation built in?

In the broad sense, yes. That’s the guided pathway. Students are more likely to decide they’re interested in the general health field, for example, than saying specifically that they want to be a radiologic technician or an anesthesiologist.

You can create a program for those students related to their potential interest in health, including services that would help them decide whether that’s really the right choice for them. Then, within that, you can address the academic problems that students have.

It seems that a key—and perhaps a roadblock—to this kind of change is faculty, many of whom are part-timers with a less vested interest in the school.

That’s true and we try to address that in the book, but it’s a very difficult problem. First, any kind of reform has to engage part-time faculty. That means you can’t just think of part-time people as cogs whenever it’s convenient.

We’re talking about a different way of teaching and of organizing the college. There would be a set of courses that are designed collectively, and adjuncts would participate in that. If faculty aren’t on board with that, then it’s just not going to happen.

Often the public perception of community colleges—to be blunt—is that they are something less. Students attending community college can’t cut it in a “real college.”

I agree, especially if you are living in kind of an upper middle class neighborhood. I used to live in Scarsdale. My own daughter referred to Westchester Community College as WKK because students who went there couldn’t spell. So that’s a sociological issue about how we view the different prestige levels of college.

You also have to recognize that community colleges are not given very much money. We have a situation where the institutions that get the students with the greatest economic and academic problems also get the least money per student.

We think there can be a significant improvement in the performance of the institutions. If we develop a stronger, more coherent system for student progress within the colleges, we can show those completion rates increasing.

At that point we’ll be able to go to the legislators and say, “Look. We’re having more success, so you should support us.”

Now, that’s never going to get around the problem that it’s not Harvard. So we have to work harder to make these institutions as effective as they can be. I think that’s the answer to the critics.

You cite a number of schools that incorporate different features of the guided pathway, such as CUNY Guttman. What’s special about that school?

Guttman is what I call a “greenfield college.” In construction, if you are building, say, a factory on greenfield land, you don’t have to deal with the existing structures which might have to be changed. So Guttman can develop unique programs and hire faculty who share this perspective.

They have programs that embed remediation within the college-level courses students are taking. They take very seriously the job of helping students choose which programs to go into. There’s a lot of interaction between counselors, faculty and students.

Another model is the seven-member City Colleges of Chicago. They’ve created eight or nine different fields and students have to choose among those different fields.

The programs have been redesigned based on program-level goals as opposed to course-level goals. So many of the types of things that we have suggested in the book they are actually doing in Chicago. That’s a whole system. Miami Dade is yet another college that’s doing many of these things.

Those are real-world examples of what you would have to do to take an existing institution and reform it as opposed to if you had the freedom to kind of create one from the beginning.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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