September 10, 2009

Keys to Increasing Graduation Rates at Community Colleges Remains Elusive

In July, President Obama announced his $12 billion investment plans for community colleges. He set the benchmark of success at an additional 5 million community college graduates within in the next 11 years – by 2020.

However, research by the Brookings Institution, noted in an Education Week article earlier this month, showed that in 2002, only 1 in 10 students who started at a community college had earned an associates degree within three years. So, how do we increase graduation rates among community college students?

Before we address that question, let’s take a step back and look at the role community colleges play in the educational system and why they are crucial to America’s success.

Community colleges were started by President Truman to increase the educational opportunities for World War II veterans. They actually represent a larger portion of the higher education system than traditional four-year colleges. 40-45% of all college undergraduates attend community colleges. They are often seen as a first step on the path to a four-year college and also educational opportunities to older adults. However, they also offer an education to underserved populations.

The open enrollment policies, coupled with low tuition, make community colleges often the only option for high need and low income students – populations largely comprised of minority students and new immigrants. The success of community colleges are intrinsically tied to the success of many underserved Americans.

So, how do we work to increase success among community college students? The experts say that there is a significant lack of research in the field. However, they do offer a number of suggestions that are being tested at various schools around the country:

• “Learning Communities” at Kingsborough Community College where 25 students take three classes together: a developmental course, a college level course and a class focused on successful study skills

• Collaborative teaching in Washington State called I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training), where a basic-skills instructor is teamed with a college-level instructor or professor to teach the same class.

Community colleges offer an egalitarian education option. While I have an undergraduate degree and M.B.A. from four-year universities, I have greatly benefited from the local community college system in Pittsburgh, PA. I took courses there one summer to help defray the cost of my education. I was exposed to a learning environment at the community college with much more diversity than I saw at my four-year college, which was a valuable opportunity beyond books and instruction.

All Americans deserve access to a quality education. Community colleges serve that purpose. Future posts will be devoted to covering the new research on community colleges and the programs which are helping students to succeed as a result of the stimulus funding.

* Brookings (May 2009) “Transforming America’s Community Colleges”
* Education Week (September 2, 2009) “Community College a Research Puzzle”
* The USA Today (July 14, 2009) “Obama plans $12B boost to community colleges”

This post was written by Leslie Marie, a volunteer blogger with the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. Leslie lives in New York City and has done outreach and research for the Ad Council. For the past year she directed the marketing and recruiting efforts for an alternative teaching certification program run by a national education consulting organization. Please leave your comments or email with your questions.

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