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Community Colleges

Paving the Way for Persistence

Community colleges don't just open their doors. They help make exits-at least those to transfer and degree completion-recognizable to students too.
University Business, May 2007

THE EARLY MONTHS OF 2007 have been a bit treacherous for community colleges. Several reports have concluded that while these institutions must be admired for making higher ed accessible, they aren't ensuring that enough students graduate or transfer.

The Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento, released the report "Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in California Community Colleges." As authors Nancy Shulock and Colleen Moore note, only about one in four of the 60 percent of those students seeking a degree or certificate succeeds in transferring to a four-year university and/or earning an associate degree or certificate within six years.

The report decries state policy barriers, including a funding formula that rewards colleges for enrollment and fails to provide incentives for transfer and degree completion. "Most of the funding is based on the number of students enrolled by about the third week of the term," says Shulock.

Another report, "California Community Colleges: Making Them Stronger and More Affordable," blames the state's low tuition for restricting financial aid and student eligibility for Pell Grants. While it seems strange to raise tuition to help students stay in school, doing so would provide more funds for support programs and boost financial aid for students pressed by the costs of textbooks, child care, housing, and other expenses. A tuition increase should be matched by the state and go to programs that improve persistence, degree completion, and transfer, argues William Zumeta, co-author of the study and a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Washington and Oregon have increased community college tuition and seen improved student persistence.

David Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, agrees, noting Washington and Oregon as examples of states that have increased tuition and seen improved student persistence. "We're talking about serving the students who have the most significant educational deficiencies."

Administrators at two-year and four year institutions are also putting forth ideas for improving student persistence. Here are a few promising strategies that can help students reach out and grab success.

At the Community College of Denver, all first-generation college students receive the assistance of a case manager. Rather than have these students meet separately with aid officers, academic advisors, and career counselors, the case manager offers a unified front. Students may discuss everyday duties such as jobs or family that could keep them from persisting in school.

CCD subscribes to the idea that making services available isn't enough. Raising student expectations and requiring them to learn what success takes is better. "We consider it our main responsibility to increase graduation rates and help students transfer," says President Christine Johnson.

"It's important to provide information in as structured a way as possible," says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Bailey has researched student persistence at institutions around the country. He sees student success courses (also known as college success courses)-in which students learn the ins and outs of attending college and transferring or obtaining a degree-as crucial.

These basic courses may hold particular value for students from first-generation college families. "Preliminary research suggests that students who participate do as well as or better than students who don't," Bailey says. "There are different ways of providing structured guidance information to students. I don't think it's realistic to think it's primarily going to be done on a one-to-one basis."

Allowing high school students to enroll in community college courses can teach them more about college expectations of them, says Bailey. At Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana-Central Indiana, more than 224 agreements have been signed with area high schools to offer dual enrollment opportunities. Free to students, the dual credit courses include content approved by Ivy Tech and offer an understanding of college requirements.

Community College of Denver advisors share office space with advisors from two four-year institutions.

It was a stroke of luck that Colorado legislators wanted to save money when establishing a campus for the Community College of Denver. To economize, the state created a joint campus for CCD, the University of Colorado, and Metropolitan State College of Denver. That helps students at the two-year college strive for baccalaureate degrees. They meet with advisors who share office space with those from the four-year institutions. And key CCD personnel meet with those from MSCD and CU to discuss barriers to transfer.

Institutions need to embody a "transfer culture," says Estela Mara Bensimon, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. "Transfer is a relational process, between students and institutional agents who show them what they need to do and how." These agents can include advisors, faculty members, and other campus leaders-anyone who can provide "college knowledge," especially to those who come from first-generation, minority, or low-income backgrounds.

To change state policies and remove institutional barriers, developing appropriate measures for evaluating student success is vital. Data should be broken down and evaluated in relation to students' backgrounds and goals, according to Bailey, who recently co-authored a brief, "The Effect of Student Goals on Community College Performance Measures," with Davis Jenkins and D. Timothy Leinbach.

The Equity Scorecard, a measure developed through the Center for Urban Education and being used by institutions around the country, is an example of a tool that allows administrators to specifically assess performance in providing equity of outcomes to students of color.

And at Long Beach City College (Calif.) staff and administrators are working with researchers at USC on a project called "The Missing 87" to understand why students who are eligible for transfer do not make the transition. The project uses strategies such as enrollment data analyses, interviews with "missing" transfer students, and audits of institutional culture and resource use.

Unmet financial need is among the chief barriers to student success. An experimental program at Delgado Community College and Louisiana Technical College- West Jefferson, both in the New Orleans area, has attempted to dismantle that barrier by providing working parents with scholarships. Students must maintain at least half-time enrollment and a GPA of 2.0 or higher to remain eligible for the program. Scholarship payments are given on an installment basis to ensure that recipients continually meet these requirements.

According to initial results of the "Opening Doors" program, which was created in partnership with the nonprofit and nonpartisan social policy research organization MDRC, the scholarships have had a noticeable impact. Compared with students who did not receive scholarships, those who participated in the program were more likely to enroll full-time and passed more courses, earned more course credits, and had higher rates of registration in college in subsequent semesters.

MDRC is working with other community colleges to design and implement new types of financial aid, enhanced student services, and curricular and instructional innovations to help low-income students obtain degrees.

Strategies abound for assisting students who are at risk of dropping off the college radar screen. At the center of these efforts lies the belief that everyone-including students, faculty, staff, and administrators must heighten their expectations of success. "I think the community colleges have been successful in graduating and transferring students," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, "but we can do better, and we need to do better."

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