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Paving the path to college completion

How community colleges can reorganize programs to focus on the end goal of getting to graduation and a successful career
University Business, October 2015
  • Intrusive advising, reverse transfers and dedicated programs for first-generation and low-income students have led to large increases in graduation rates at Howard Community College in Maryland.
  • The Native American Center at San Juan College in New Mexico sponsors an annual “Pow Wow” event. The school has the third-highest graduation rate for Native Americans among U.S. community colleges.
  • Guttman Community College in New York City fully embraced the “pathway” approach when it opened three years ago. The Manhattan school’s founding principle is to increase completion rates, particularly among low-income students.
  • Advisors at St. Petersburg College help students figure out why they’ve enrolled and to define their goals.

Community colleges have achieved the goal of providing broader and cheaper access to higher education. Now, experts and administrators say, the focus must turn more aggressively toward student success and completion.

To that end, community colleges have to reduce reliance on remedial education and better advise students against randomly choosing courses that won’t lead to an associate’s degree or successful transfer to a four-year institution, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.

“Many students coming in—probably the majority—not only don’t have clear plans for college and career, they don’t know what their options are. And colleges don’t do a good job helping them with that,” says Jenkins, a co-author of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Harvard University Press, 2015).

“We suggest community colleges rethink, in a fundamental way, how they’re organized, starting with the end in mind—and that’s careers,” he adds.

Several institutions have ramped up advising and academic tracking methods so students have a clearer idea of what courses they need to earn certificates or two- or four-year degrees. These “pathways” can be integrated into the curriculum as “exploratory majors”—or sequences of courses—that give students a taste of a certain field, such as business, without locking them into a specialty.

Reaching back to high schools

These success efforts also reach down into the K12 system. The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District east of San Diego has cemented a new partnership with its 12 local high schools to align curriculums and better prepare approximately 22,000 students for higher education.

The community college also offers a full year of tuition to local high school students who maintain a 2.0 GPA, take a student success course and participate in college awareness activities, Grossmont-Cuyamaca Chancellor Cindy L. Miles says.

These initiatives should steer toward college some of the 40 percent of local high school graduates who don’t pursue any form of higher education.

Working with the high schools also should reduce the need for remedial courses that cause many students to drop out once they get to community college, Miles says.

The college also has stepped up advising efforts to encourage students to get their associate’s degrees. Not only do students with AAs earn bachelor’s degrees at higher rates, but two-year diplomas provide a career-boosting safety net a student has to leave school after transferring, Miles says.

Over the last five years, Grossmont-Cuyamaca has increased the number of degrees and certificates award by 80 percent, from 2,200 to more than 4,000.

“Community college is the place that makes a difference for so many who are striving to become part of the middle class—we’re the place that bridges the gap between the haves and haves not,” Miles says. “This is where we’re going to make a difference, not just in students’ lives but in the well-being of the entire nation.”

“In the past, the focus was on access—getting students through the door,” says Kate Hetherington, president of Howard Community College in Maryland. “But we want to get them through the door and back out with a degree. That’s the main difference between now and 10 years ago.”

Building powerful pipelines

Students who start in Arizona’s Maricopa Community College District can enter a track that will carry them smoothly to degree programs at Arizona State University.

In 2009, the two institutions established the “Maricopa to ASU Pathways Programs,” or MAPP, to increase transfers, provide more academic guidance and reduce the time and cost of completion, says Maria Hesse, Arizona State’s vice provost for academic partnerships and former president of one of Maricopa’s 10 colleges.

MAPP has now become the model for partnerships between ASU and every two-year institution in the state, including two tribal colleges.

“We have 10,000 transfer students coming into ASU,” Hesse says. “The more concerted we can be helping students prepare for success in advance of their arrival is a really important concept.”

When a student signs up for the program (at no extra cost), ASU begins sending them information on the specific courses they should take at their community college. They’re the courses that lead to an associate’s degree and earn them half the credits needed for a bachelor’s degree—for any of 230 ASU majors.

Students can monitor their progress through their own online “MyASU” account, which pulls in transcripts from the community college to create an updated list of the courses they’ve completed and which credits they still need.

ASU stations transfer specialists from its enrollment department at the community colleges. The specialists meet regularly with students to make them aware of resources like MyASU and to help the students stay on their academic tracks. Guaranteed admission to ASU gives students extra motivation to complete the program, Hesse says.

Broward College in South Florida—formerly a community college that now offers some baccalaureate programs—also works closely with two nearby four-year institutions. The partnership with Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University allows students to earn associate’s degrees so they can transfer successfully into bachelor’s programs.

Florida Atlantic places advisors on Broward’s campus who hold workshops to inform students what courses they need to get into university degree programs. Faculty from the two schools also meet to better structure degree pathways, says Joyce Walsh-Portillo, Broward’s associate vice president of academic affairs.

This helps Broward’s advisors design a curriculum for each student, so that financial aid funds aren’t used on unnecessary courses. Based on students’ interest, the college will prescribe their first 15 to 18 credit hours to get them headed in the right direction, she says.

“New students don’t know what they want to study. They’re exposed to hundreds of courses and they just start guessing,” Walsh-Portillo says. “We do curriculum mapping so students are not wasting time with courses they don’t need, and they’re they’re using financial aid wisely.”

Outlining colorful career outlooks

Farther north in the same state, administrators at St. Petersburg College focused first on revamping enrollment and registration procedures as part of a five-prong approach to increasing completion rates among its 35,000 credit-seeking students, explains Tonjua Williams, senior vice president of student services.

“We realized our first-time students were struggling to get through the enrollment funnel and into class, and once they got to class, they weren’t prepared regarding study skills and what career they were preparing for,” Williams says.

The school has made its application easier and now provides pre-admissions advisors to smooth students’ on-boarding process as well as a free four-week, face-to-face orientation seminar. This school year, the college began offering online and blended orientation sessions.

The number of applicants who enroll has risen from 40 percent to 52 percent, Williams says.

The next phase helps students figure out why they’ve enrolled in college and define their goals, whether that’s a professional certificate, associate’s degree or baccalaureate program.

Students get color-coded based on their level of focus. “Red means they have no clue why they’re here,” Williams says. “When a student is coded red, our career advisors bombard the students to tell them they need to do some job shadowing and career inventories.”

Students who declare an interest are coded yellow, so they can be clustered into an academic area. At that point they begin receiving deeper guidance from advising teams.

These students then get coded green and embark on a structured learning plan based on their career paths. Analysis of retention rates has shown that students who are coded green and yellow persist more than those marked red.

Paired with this system are campus learning centers where students can receive tutoring. Advisors will steer students toward tutoring even before they start struggling. St. Petersburg students who attended tutoring at least five times have a success rate 88 percent higher than students who don’t seek help, Williams says.

The college’s early-alert system allows faculty to notify advisors if a student has missed class, skipped assignments or is simply not engaged in class discussions.

Since the college initiated the new approach in 2012, success rates—meaning a student earned a C or higher in a course—are up 16 percent for African-American males and up 15 percent for Hispanic males. And 80 percent of all students who draw early alerts succeeded in their courses.

“We’re really going all out to help the student,” Williams says. “We’re trying to make failing impossible.”

Boosting minority and first-gen success

Howard Community College, located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., has achieved an 86 percentage point graduation-rate increase over the past six years—the highest in Maryland. The college’s combined transfer and graduation rate was 40.9 percent for the class that entered in 2009, compared to the 33.7 percent state average.

Three keys to this success are intrusive advising, reverse transfers and dedicated programs for first-generation and low-income students, says President Hetherington.

“In intrusive advising, you’re encouraging students to declare a major early, rather than floundering and trying to figure out what they’re trying to do,” she says. “For employers and transfer institutions, students are much better off having a degree than just accumulating a bunch of courses.”

As early as first-year orientation, advisors encourage students to choose an academic focus. And students who remain undecided as they continue taking courses are recontacted frequently. Those who’ve declared a major not only have a more purposeful direction but will receive even more support from their academic departments.

A Department of Education grant funds support services for students who are first-generation, low-income or who have disabilities. One program, called “Step Up,” pairs these students with a dedicated faculty or staff volunteer who will offer coaching in study skills and other topics during weekly one-on-one sessions.

Another initiative, “Howard Pride,” is designed to increase retention and completion rates for black males. A specific focus of the program—which started about four years ago with 50 students but has since doubled—is math, Hetherington says. Black males in the program are showing better success rates than those not involved.

The college has reverse transfer agreements with three nearby universities. Administrators track transfer students’ transcripts and notify them if they’ve attained an associate’s degree.

San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, pays special attention to Native Americans in its success efforts. The school has the third highest graduation rate for Native Americans among U.S. community colleges: 30 percent of its 18,000 yearly students are Native Americans.

Using grants and its own campus Native American Center, the college provides these students with extra advising and academic support, says President Toni Hopper Pendergrass. Hispanic students and veterans can access similar resources, though everyone who enrolls now has to take a student success course that hadn’t been mandatory in the past.

Through intrusive advising, all students are encouraged to pick an academic concentration as early as possible. For example: Students following a health sciences path may not get into the nursing program, but will have the credits to progress in a related health field.

Building on this, San Juan also has developed a “career lattice” that allows students to start working in their career areas as they pass classes and develop their skills—and regional employers are on board, Pendergrass says.

San Juan’s graduation rate is rising annually and the school is on track to meet President Obama’s goal of increasing the rate by 50 percent by 2020, she adds.

Trend-setting by new NYC school

Guttman Community College in New York City fully embraced the “pathway” approach when it opened three years ago. The Manhattan school’s founding principle is to increase completion rates, particularly among low-income students, President Scott Evenbeck says.

Guttman directs its students—all of whom attend full-time—into directed courses of study in one of five majors: liberal arts, business, social work, IT and urban studies. “We want to have a strength-based approach. When you focus on remediation, that’s a deficit approach,” Evenbeck says. “We don’t build on our deficits, we build on our strengths.”

The school, which had just under 700 students in fall 2015, uses the city as an outdoor, hands-on classroom. Instead of remedial classes, it requires first-year students to take a course called “City Seminar,” which blends math, reading and writing into lessons about sustainability and immigration in New York.

Guttman tries to put students on the right path even before classes start. It runs a two-week bridge program in which students are divided into cohorts of 25 to meet with advisors and faculty who will guide them through their education.

The students remain in their cohorts throughout their time at Guttman. “In lots of graduate and professional programs, students go through in cohort groups,” Evenbeck says. “That’s a way we know really works, yet we don’t do that so much with beginning students in community colleges.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

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