College & Workforce Readiness

Early Career Focus Improves Community College Completion

By Caralee J. Adams — September 09, 2011 2 min read
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It makes sense: If students are focused on why they are going to school, they are more likely to finish. Yet many community college students still take two years or more to choose a career path, and studies find that can have detrimental results.

New findings from the Community College Research Center show that entering an academic or vocational program at a community college is strongly correlated with student completion—and the earlier students make the decision, the better. This connection with a career path and graduation held regardless of the student’s background or academic readiness.

Yet, many students enter community colleges with no idea of what they want to study. And that lack of direction contributes to the dismal graduation rates at two-year institutions. While just 30 percent of community college students overall graduate or transfer to four-year institutions within six years, the CCRC found the success rate jumped to 50 percent for students who declared and pursued a concentrated field of study.

In a study just released yesterday, researchers Davis Jenkins and Madeline Joy Weiss followed 62,000 students at community and technical colleges in the state of Washington over seven years. They looked at those who passed at least three college-level courses in a single field and found just half met that criteria. Students from low-income backgrounds were less likely to focus on a field of study than others, the study found.

Often, students get bogged down in developmental courses, where they struggle academically and don’t receive counseling to help put them on a career path and focus their education, the researchers note.

Another study, published in April by Jenkins, found that the sooner students declared and pursued a certain program, the more likely they were to finish their studies. Analyzing community college data, researchers found that half of students who entered a program of study got a degree or went on to a four-year college within five years. Among those who waited to declare a focus until the second year, only one-third completed, and for those students who didn’t enter a program until their third year, just 20 percent were successful.

To address this problem, the CCRC authors suggest community college administrators:

• Require freshmen to take a college success course and come up with a plan for their studies that includes career goals;

• Provide remediation that helps students understand the context and value in relation to potential career paths;

• Create prescribed course sequences for various programs to keep students on track;

• Minimize elective courses to help student accelerate their time to a degree.

Researchers emphasized the importance of not only improved counseling, but also the role of faculty to recruit students into their programs. To get students on track with a career and improve graduation rates, the papers also noted the need for better communication with high schools.

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