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The College Completion Labyrinth

by Allison Rizzolo

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

The majority of transfer students from community college (62 percent) will go on to receive a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students who have already received a two-year credential before transferring have an even better shot, with 72 percent going on to complete a bachelor's in 6 years. This data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a report released last week.

While there is certainly room for improvement, this is hopeful news. For many young Americans, community college represents one of the few remaining pathways to the American Dream, and these colleges serve nearly half of the nation's undergraduate population.

The students tracked for the study had transferred without taking time off, meaning they likely had more momentum than the typical student, according to researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Momentum – helping students maintain it and supporting them when it flags—is a critical component of student success. After all, while students in this study had decent success rates, for more than half of the country's community college students, in 6 years, they will not have completed a two-year degree or transferred to a four-year college.

Many students face hurdles in their personal lives that make completion difficult: they work full-time, they're caring for a family, they commute, they attend school part-time. But the ways in which some community colleges operate present many unnecessary barriers that prevent students from reaching their goals.

Most of us tend to think about the path through community college as something like this:



But here's what the community college experience is really like for most students:

Graphics courtesy of Greg Stoup, Rob Johnstone, and Priyadarshini Chaplot of The RP Group.



The complexity of a student’s pathway through an associate’s degree or transfer sheds light on why so few community college students make it to the end of their programs. Yet this flaw in the system is structurally fixable. There are policies and practices that straighten the completion maze and improve and support student momentum.

We've been working with leading, innovative community colleges to identify and implement practices that help students better find their way. We've also spoken to community college students from across the country to hear what they say would help them more easily navigate enrollment, completion and transfer. The ideas they raise include:

  • Programs with well-defined pathways and clear goals.
  • Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals.
  • More inter-departmental collaboration and better channels of communication on campus, so students can better find the information and services they need.
  • Exposure to career possibilities.
  • Developmental education offered in a way that helps students succeed.

Another thing we heard frequently from students was, "I should have known." The students we have spoken to are quick to blame themselves for not being able to reach the end of the completion maze. Unfortunately, their experiences reinforce the misperception many hear their whole life: that they're not college ready; that college isn't for them.

We owe it to students to fix the flaws in our higher education system. The stories, concerns, and recommendations raised by current and former students serve as useful and powerful points of departure as we explore how to help more students complete a degree.

To find out more about what students have to say regarding their community college experience – what helps and hinders their progress – read our Student Voices report and watch this short video.



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