Community colleges, the often-overlooked workhorses of America's higher-education system, are finally getting some respect. Sure, many have been forced to cut their budgets due to shortfalls in state revenues. But President Obama has pledged his support to these schools, setting a goal of an additional 5 million students by 2020. Bill Gates' foundation announced a $35 million grant aimed at boosting graduation rates. And NBC is about to premiere the third season of its hit comedy Community, which is set at one of these underappreciated institutions.
The official website of that fictional Greendale (Colo.) Community College boasts it offers students "straight As," which it defines as Accessibility, Affordability, Air Conditioning, Awesome New Friends and A Lot of Classes. While one can sense the effort it took to fill out that list, as satire, it's pretty gentle — even affectionate. In terms of pop-culture cred, community colleges are almost cool.
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Enrollment in community colleges has been surging in the U.S., due in part to the economic downturn. With jobs scarce and university tuitions out of reach for many, these schools make an attractive alternative. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, approximately 8 million students enrolled in for-credit courses in the fall of 2010 — an increase of more than 20 percent over fall 2007 levels. But as the Christian Science Monitor complained last year, the graduation rate at these institutions is "dismal," with only about one-quarter of students earning a degree over three years.
Granted, not every community college student is aiming to get a degree. But Nancy Shulock, executive director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento, released a study last year that tracked more than 250,000 California community college students who were working toward that goal. She found nearly 70 percent of them hadn't graduated from community college, nor transferred to a four-year university, within six years.
The first step in boosting that number has to be retaining first-year students. And the key to that, according to a 2008 report by David S. Fike of Texas Tech University, is remedial education. "The strongest predictor for retention is passing a developmental reading course," he writes in the journal Community College Review. "College-level reading comprehension and reading strategies are essential for students to be able to read and understand their college-level textbooks."
That may be a tad self-evident. But another 2008 report, this one from the University of Texas at Austin, finds many community colleges are reluctant to acknowledge this reality. Although "more and more students enter college academically unprepared," the authors write, educators and state officials "have long been reluctant to acknowledge the depth of the challenge, or to take the steps necessary to overcome it."
Fike, who analyzed data from an urban Texas community college, adds that taking a remedial math course also increases the odds of a student staying in school — "even if they did not successfully complete it." (Apparently they learn something useful, even if they don't make it to the finish line.) "Research-based best practices in developmental education should be implemented," he recommends, "including mandatory assessment and placement." In other words, build the foundation first.
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Of course, retention rates vary from school to school. So, what characterizes those community colleges that graduate more students or transfer more of them to four-year institutions? In a 2007 paper, a research team led by Juan Carlos Calcagno formerly of Mathematica Policy Research surprisingly concluded that "tuition levels are generally not related to differences in the graduation probabilities." But it did find an inverse relationship between school size and graduation rates. With community colleges, it seems, bigger is not better.
For a look at what public schools are doing to repair themselves on the cheap, check out the education stories found in the September-October 2011 issue of Miller-McCune, and when they'll be available on Miller-McCune.com:
Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results, August 22
What Would Diane Ravitch Say?, August 22
Chicago Charter Schools Aim to Lift Urban Education, August 23
Bad Teachers Improving With Help From Peers, August 24
Math, Midterms and Community, August 25
Bridging the Budget Gap with Stolen Lunch Money, August 25
Teaching Religious Literacy in California's Bible Belt, August 26
Teaching Kids to Love Nature (and Buy Less Stuff), August 26
Another problem, according to a 2006 report in the Journal of Higher Education, is "the increasing proclivity of community colleges to hire faculty on part-time and temporary lines." Daniel Jacoby of the University of Washington Bothell, writes that while this practice saves money, it comes at a price: "Community college graduation rates decrease as the proportion of part-time faculty employed increases.
Jacoby's findings, which were based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, were echoed in a 2009 study that focused on the California community college system. Audrey Jaeger of North Carolina State University reports that "the average California community college student spends nearly 50 percent of his or her classroom time in courses with part-time instructors. According to estimates from our models, this level of exposure translates into the average student being at least 5 percent less likely to graduate with an associate's degree, compared to his or her peers who only have full-time instructors."
Other factors predicting lower graduation rates, according to Jaeger's study, include the decision to attend school part time, the need for financial aid and, for some reason, the student's gender. At least in California, "women appeared to be 6 percent more likely to earn an associate degree than their male peers." Perhaps at community colleges, the big men on campus are actually women.
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Then again, an increasing percentage of community college students aren't setting foot on campus all that often. Online education — that is, courses in which some or all of the content is delivered via the Internet — is growing rapidly. While there is much debate among educators as to whether this is a good thing, Fike's research finds that, among community college students, "taking Internet courses is a strong predictor of student retention," apparently due to the flexibility they provide. For a student with work and/or family responsibilities, the ability to log on and listen to a lecture at any time is a huge plus.
But researchers from Columbia College's Community College Research Center raised red flags in two reports released over the past year. Looking at students who enrolled in the state of Virginia's community college system in 2004, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Di Xu found that "students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses," and that "students who took remedial courses online were less likely to advance to subsequent gatekeeper courses."
That same pair of researchers reported similar results in Washington state. "We found students who participated in online courses had lower success rates on a variety of outcomes, even after controlling for a rich array of student characteristics, including prior academic performance and concurrent hours of employment," they write. (Evidence from hybrid courses, featuring an online component, was more mixed.)
In both states, online learning proved increasingly popular; by 2008, nearly half of Virginia students and nearly 30 percent of Washington students had enrolled in at least one such class. "Online learning is an important strategy to improve course access and flexibility," Xu and Jaggars conclude. But they add there is a clear need to address its shortcomings, including students' "sense of social distance and isolation" and the "limited availability of online student support services."
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Much recent research has linked success in life with a high level of emotional intelligence. But can that sort of sensitivity be taught at a community college? In a special issue of the journal New Directions for Community Colleges, published in the fall of 2010, teachers from different disciplines share how they've incorporated concepts such as mindfulness and self-awareness into their curriculums.
Dan Huston of NHTI, Concord's Community College in Concord, N.H., found the sort of self-awareness techniques promoted by Harvard University's Jon Kabat-Zinn fit beautifully into an introductory communications course. "When students are nervous about giving a speech, which most of them are, they undoubtedly feel physical symptoms of that nervousness," he writes. "Mindfulness can help students realize that experiencing those physical symptoms is okay, and that they don't have to get wrapped up in the self-talk that often accompanies them."
His students don't just learn how to talk to a group: They learn how to pay attention to their emotions and observe them rather than be overwhelmed by them. That's knowledge that will serve them well, even if they never approach another lectern.