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Increasing Graduation Rates for Community College Students

The good news is that young people are enrolling in college in record numbers. The bad news is their graduation rates are less than stellar: little more than half for four-year programs and only about a third for community college students. But a closer look at particular schools – especially those serving the underprivileged – reveals even worse numbers.

What are the colleges with rates in the 90 percent range doing differently? One big difference is the services available which are designed to prevent failure. Less advantaged students often find themselves at schools that are ill-prepared to help them with the challenges they face in continuing their education.

There’s a remedy at hand, and it’s pretty straightforward. Nationwide, universities need to give undergraduates the care and attention akin to what’s lavished on students at elite institutions. If that help is forthcoming, graduation rates more than double, according to several evaluations of an innovative program at the City University of New York’s community colleges.

Over the past month, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has garnered hosannas in the media for its package of comprehensive financial resources, student support systems and impressive graduation rates.

…All too often [low-income and minority students] are steered to schools where they receive little if any support in mastering tough courses, decoding arcane requirements for a major, sorting out life problems or navigating the maze of institutional requirements. Graduation rates at these so-called dropout factories, especially those in urban areas that largely serve low-income, underprepared minority populations, are as abysmal as 5 percent.

In addition to the New York boroughs, there are similar programs in Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, and many others states — some publicly funded and others privately. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has jumped into the act with their Completion by Design program. 

There are also pushes for non-traditional ways to earn degrees.

The bet public community colleges have made—that the best way to meet the needs of their constituents is by offering as much flexibility and convenience as possible—makes a certain intuitive sense in light of such complications. So does a commitment to low cost. Give students a cheap, expansive menu, served up at all hours; don’t demand a specific diet—that’s not a bad metaphor for the community-college experience today.

If anything, with enthusiasm rising for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the higher-education pendulum is now swinging further in this direction. The current interest in “competency-based learning”—liberating students to earn degrees not by amassing credit hours but by preparing for assessments of particular skills at whatever pace and by whichever route they choose—is part of the same trend. Some reformers see the seeds of a revolution in college education, promising ultraconvenient, self-guided, low-cost courses of study for everyone. The “beginning of the unbundling of the American university” is how one observer has described the transformation. All it will take for students to avail themselves of this emerging opportunity is a clear sense of where they’re headed, lots of self-motivation, and good access to information about what mix of skills is likely to lead to a promising career.

While college is not for everyone — and many students learn their true calling from their failures — for those who simply need guidance and extra support, recapturing the billions of lost earnings (and the taxes they produce) are well worth the investment.


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