Education

Community College Students Need More Support to Be Successful, Research Finds

By Caralee J. Adams — January 27, 2015 4 min read
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Despite having the aspiration, many students who start at a community college never transfer to four-year institutions, let alone finish an associate degree.

Recent research highlights the need to provide extra support to community college students, many of whom are low-income, first in their families to attend college, and have limited access to career advice.

Just 12 percent of students who enter community college with the goal of getting a bachelor’s degree actually complete, according to “Breaking Down Walls: Increasing Access to Four-Year Colleges for High-Achieving Community College Students,” released recently by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The report by the Lansdowne-Va.-based organization says with the right tools and opportunities, more community college students can make the move to a four-year school.

“The single most critical thing is to provide counseling support for students when they are making the transition” from community college to a four-year institution, Harold Levy, executive director of the foundation, said in an interview.

The foundation provides about 85 scholarships a year to community college students who want to transition to a university. The academically high-achieving, low-income students receive up to $40,000 in the last-dollar scholarship program, as well as regular encouragement and guidance from counselors, said Levy.

“Although they are high performing, they are still quite fragile,” he said. “They are going into an environment that is alien to them.”

Nealy 97 percent of students who participate in the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship program earn their bachelor’s degree within three years and 10 percent graduate from an Ivy League school, the new report shows.

To get more students to successfully transition from two-year to four-year schools, the foundation suggests expanding recruitment of high-achieving students, improving transfer advising, and ramping up student support services.

Stephen Olsen first attended Santa Monica Community College in California before receiving the foundation’s transfer scholarship and enrolling at Brown University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literary arts last year. Now he is in graduate school and continues to receive support from the foundation. Coming from a low-income family where no one had gone to college, Olsen figured an elite school was out of reach.

“It was kind of a family value that only super geniuses go to Ivy League schools,” Olsen, 36, said in an interview. “It cut off options for me.”

With the scholarship, he was able to get the financing and push to attend the selective university in Providence, R.I., “People don’t believe it’s possible, but people can really do anything they want,” said Olsen. “It’s no big deal to go to Brown. It’s available as an opportunity to anyone who applies.”

In another related report released today by the William T. Grant Foundation, based in New York City, researchers examined the experience of community college students who leave without a credential and outlined strategies help students complete.

“The New Forgotten Half and Research Directions to Support Them” by James Rosenbaum, professor of education at Northwestern University, notes that access is no longer a major problem. Instead, helping students complete is the challenge. Many students are dropping out of community college before getting any credential, which results in no earnings payoff.

However, with a professional certificate, graduates can earn 13 percent more than high school graduates, with an associate degree workers can boost their earnings by 22 percent, and bachelor’s degree holders earn 34 percent more.

Financing, counseling, and curriculum alignment were among the recommendations in the report to improve student success.

Only 20 percent of community college students obtain a bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating from high school. Half of those just who did not complete college, reported money as the main reason for dropping out. The report calls for more guidance to help students understand the financial aid system and secure funding.

With 60 percent of incoming college students failing placement exams, the report recommends better alignment between the standards of high school and college so students enter better prepared.

The paper is an update to the original report, “The Forgotten Half” that came out in 1988 and focused on the inequality of opportunity among young people. The new report analyzed student data from 2002-2012 to explain how educational institutions may inadvertently contribute to the ongoing disadvantages that many students face in trying to succeed in higher education.

“Young people’s difficulties now occur after entering college...finding solutions to these challenges demands new thinking about the college experience and how students navigate it,” the report states.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.

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