Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Popularity Offers Challenges for Community Colleges

By Caralee J. Adams — May 31, 2011 11 min read
Northern Virginia Community College student Chessy Dintruff, center, seeks help during orientation at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. A community college program prepared her for university study.
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Community colleges are front and center in national debates over whether K-12 educators are putting too much emphasis on four-year colleges in the drive to persuade more students to enroll in postsecondary studies. To be sure, having an economically productive life will require some training after high school, but experts say companies are looking for an array of skills and competencies–and not all require a bachelor’s degree.

“In terms of the job market today and increasingly in the future, research shows there are more jobs open to someone with an associate degree or certificate than someone with a bachelor’s degree,” says Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

More students than ever are going to community colleges—and their numbers account for nearly half of all the college undergraduates in the country. Nationwide enrollment at community colleges grew by 15 percent from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2010 with an all-time high of 12.4 million students that year on 1,167 campuses, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, and the institutions are key to President Barack Obama’s goal of making the United States first in the world in the percentage of citizens who are college graduates.

For many, it’s an economic decision. The average cost of tuition and fees at a community college is $2,700, compared to a four-year college’s $7,600. At the same time, community colleges are serving an increasingly broad cross section of the student population—those transitioning to a four-year college, older students returning to school, laid-off workers and English-language learners. Enrollment is essentially open to anyone who walks on campus, yet schools have dwindling resources as many have had drastic cuts in state funding.

Stuck in Remediation

But community colleges’ booming popularity and expanding mission also obscure some vexing problems. Graduation rates continue to be a challenge and many students enter community colleges only to get mired in remediation courses, never to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. On average, 22 percent of students complete a public community college within three years; at four-year public colleges, the undergraduate completion rate in six years is 56 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The recent spotlight on community colleges has also drawn attention to their shortcomings, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “These are schools with lots of problems,” she says. “It makes people wonder why should we support them if they have such low graduation rates.”

The public is asking community colleges to be all things to all people and the biggest challenge is serving this diverse set of students, many of whom have financial problems and were barely making it academically in high school, says Goldrick-Rab. Are community colleges up to the task that policymakers are asking of them? As far as capacity and resources to meet the need: “No,” Goldrick-Rab says. Yet they do have a deep commitment to the ideal of open access.

In response to the challenge, community colleges have to innovate. To help students be more successful, many institutions are working with students as early as high school to provide support through the transition. And, to improve students’ chances of finding meaningful employment, campuses are partnering with industry to consult on curriculum for skills needed in the workforce.

President Obama’s goal of leading the world in the percentage of college graduates requires community colleges to produce five million more graduates by 2020. “Community colleges have put in place a set of strategies state by state that will get us to that goal and, hopefully, exceed it,” says Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.

Leaders at Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, a 75,000-student college with six campuses and three centers, created the Pathway to the Baccalaureate in 2005, geared to working with at-risk high school students who face barriers—financial, social or academic—before ever setting foot on campus. College counselors work in high schools with seniors, meeting with them individually and giving workshops on the college transition, including the application process and financial aid.

“Many students just don’t know where to begin. They are the first in their family to go to college,” says Shannon Ingram, the program’s coordinator of transition services.

Pass Rates Improve

The program prepares students for the community college placement test and administers it to students there. This way, students can retake it, if needed, rather than having to do remediation at college, which can be a big setback in time and money. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of students need to take developmental education—essentially, remedial studies—when they arrive at community college. Pathway students had a 66 percent pass rate in placement tests, compared with 55 percent for those not in the program, says Kerin Hilker-Balkisoon, the program director.

Counselors can give students clear direction beginning in high school and are a familiar face once on campus to help with the transition. High school students visit the NOVA campus in the spring and then are handed off to a new retention counselor for continued support and guidance in selecting the right classes. Students must become engaged in a campus activity and turn in midsemester progress reports from each teacher to give counselors early warnings of problems.

Dintruff, finds her way around the George Mason campus at orientation.

Alexandra Renalds says she struggled in her biology class her first semester at NOVA, but her Pathway counselor, Alexander Coppelman, provided moral support, set her up with a tutor, and talked her into sticking it out. “We have extremely personalized attention. I feel like my counselor really wanted to help me and keep me on track,” says Renalds, 20, who will graduate this spring after two years in the Pathway program with an associate degree in social science.

Coppelman says that the program’s structure allows him to work with students long-term so they can develop a rapport. “They have the feeling that someone on campus cares for them— and wants them to succeed,”he says.

Another student, Chessy Dintruff, was reluctant to sign up for community college, which she thought sounded more like “High School Part II.” But after two years in the Pathway program, she will graduate with an associate degree in social science—with no student loan debt—and is enrolling at George Mason University in medical technology in the fall.

“I’ve seen a lot of friends drop out or can’t pay for college, but the counselors held my hand,” she says. “I’ve had friends who looked down on the community college apologize to me and say, ‘You’ve saved so much money.’ ”

Statistics on Success

Pathway students are twice as likely to graduate from NOVA as other students. While the overall graduation rate in 2009 at the college was 16 percent, it was 28 percent for Pathway students. If they finish and maintain a 2.5 GPA, they are guaranteed admission at one of Virginia’s state universities. This year, NOVA has 5,000 students in the Pathway program and the number is expected to grow to 6,500 next year.

Nationwide, Barnett of Columbia University, says there is a trend toward blurring the boundaries between high school and college in order to improve schooling outcomes for students.

“If high school students get a taste of college, they do better once they are there. They understand what is required,” she says.

For example, at Portland Community College, in Oregon, a dual-credit program is allowing students to take college-level classes taught in their high schools. Annual “connection” meetings give college faculty and high school instructors a chance to meet to discuss assignments and expectations for students in the classes they teach in common. “We have strong collaboration between the 44 programs at the college that are in the dual-credit program,” says Karen Jones, the coordinator of the program.

Since 2005, the program has nearly tripled the number of students it serves from about 1,600 to nearly 4,500 students. The credits earned have also climbed to more than 25,000 in 2009-2010, saving students $1.9 million in tuition.

While not designed as a recruiting program, about 30 percent of students who take the dual-credit program enroll at pcc. “It prepares students to go on so they are stronger students,” and more likely to complete their education, says Jones.

Another approach to improving college-graduation rates is the early college high school. At these schools, students can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate degree.

At Buncombe County Early College High School on the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, N.C., students are chosen by lottery for the five-year program. “We had to carefully create buy-in among faculty at the community college and help parents and teachers understand this was a viable option out of 8th grade,” says Principal Meg Turner.

When students enroll in a college-level history course at Buncombe, they attend class twice a week with a professor and, once a week, Tim Arnold teaches a support class at the early-college high school. “Ninety minutes of a straight lecture is problematic for some,” says Arnold. “It’s not student-centered project work like in high school.” So the support class of just 12 students provides a place to review material with students before tests and provide feedback in writing research papers.

The early college has become popular in the Asheville area. This year, there were 115 applications for 60 spots. A big plus is that students who are successful can save two years’ worth of college expenses. While the state reports an average graduation rate of 74 percent, Buncombe projects an 88 percent completion rate this year. Turner says annual dropout rates are also lower—2 percent at the early college high school compared with 5 percent statewide.

Community colleges have long worked with industry to craft curricula that meet the needs of local businesses. Those partnerships have expanded in recent years with the hope among national policymakers that community colleges will help provide trained workers who can jumpstart the economy. In many instances, businesses are stepping up to provide private donations to help community colleges continue to grow and create workers to meet their labor force needs.

Many companies simply haven’t given to community colleges because they were never asked, says Mark Milliron, deputy director of the Postsecondary Improvement U.S. Program with the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is also underwriting improvement efforts at community colleges across the country. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

“Businesses have become major donors to community colleges because they understand that’s where many of their employees are coming from,” Milliron says.

Robert Templin Jr., the president of NOVA, has reached out to the business community to fill the gap in funding that resulted from state budget cuts and increased enrollment. The school has engaged employers in its program to build commitment to the school and education of the future workforce.

Employer Partners

NOVA has formed partnerships with several local health-care providers and high-tech companies, such as Micron Technology, a company that makes semiconductors. Micron gave the college $1 million to establish Systemic Solutions, an initiative at NOVA to promote science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, careers, through robotics competitions for elementary, middle and high school students, training for science teachers and other programs on the NOVA campuses.

“We are targeting those who have an aptitude for a technical career, but may not have the support in place to pursue it,” says Amy Harris, the director of the initiative at NOVA.

Zuzana Steen, university and academic relations manager at Micron, says there is a huge shortage of STEM-educated professionals and many unfilled positions in the region. “Micron is doing well and hiring at full speed,” says Steen. “We are trying to build a pipeline.”

Micron also works with faculty on campus to tailor engineering curriculum and design courses to help Micron employees upgrade their skills, in labs and online.

Halfway across the country, Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., has partnered with Haas Automation for six years on the college’s program in advanced manufacturing processes. Students are trained to operate Computer Numerical Control machines that cut metal parts.

The company rotates in the latest equipment on campus—some of it valued as much as $200,000—so students learn on the latest machinery. It’s not practical for the college to invest that much in machinery that may be obsolete in a few years, says Joseph Petrosky, dean of engineering and advanced technology.

The company brings customers on campus to look at the equipment, giving students a chance to network with potential employers, says Petrosky. He says students who earn an associate of applied science and manufacturing technology degree or a certificate can eventually make annual salaries of $50,000 to $70,000. “A lot of employers are calling us,” says Petrosky.

Milliron of the Gates Foundation says there is an entrepreneurial spirit among community colleges and they are rising to the occasion to work with K-12 and businesses as partners. “Part of the challenge now is to take the core innovation we know is working and scale it up to where we have the most impact on students,” he says.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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