Americans believe in community college. While the perceived value of a four-year degree has declined, in the view of many, faith in community colleges remains high. Some 82 percent of Americans consider community college to be worth the cost, compared to just 43 percent who say the same of private, four-year colleges.
However, community colleges are facing the same challenges as four-year institutions: declining enrollment, rising costs and faltering student retention. What are they doing to help students get started, persevere and thrive in their academic career?
Creating more structured curricula
College completion is a persistent problem for community colleges, where the three-year graduation rate is just 22 percent. Tennessee has found a counterintuitive solution: programs that offer students less flexibility. In its Colleges of Applied Technology network, students select a career-oriented program such as nursing or automotive technology, then attend a scheduled block of classes each day. In this structured environment, 82 percent of students graduate.
Keeping up the momentum with summer studies
Persistence was a problem for part-time students in the Alamo Colleges District, a system of five community colleges in and around San Antonio, Tex. Full-time students saw a 66 percent retention rate, compared to 51 percent for part-time. Twenty percent of full-time students graduated in four years; just 12 percent of part-time students did.
Momentum was key to helping students persist, administrators believed. So Alamo launched the Fast Completion Incentive Plan, a program that awards three to six free credit hours during the summer term to students who earn 18 to 24 credits in the fall and spring. The program’s still new, but “our long-term hope is to help more students realize that goal, by seeing it from the start, recognize when they’re making progress and build momentum to stay until they’re done,” Jo-Carol Fabianke, Vice Chancellor for Academic Success, told Evolllution.
Introducing an all-online community college
California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an ambitious addition to the state’s already-enormous higher education system: an online community college that focuses on short, intensive courses and offers certificates and credentials (but not degrees.)
Many questions remain about the proposal, as Inside Higher Ed reports: Would it increase or decrease enrollment at the state’s 114 physical community colleges? Would financial aid be available? Would a public online college successfully compete with for-profit online programs? But supporters hope it will work for an underserved population of adult learners who have attained a high school diploma or completed some college.
Offering tuition-free community college for qualified students
New York. Oregon. Tennessee. Rhode Island. All have begun offering free community college to students, and now they may be joined by West Virginia. The WV Invests Grant would require students to enroll in at least six credit hours per semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA, pass a drug test each semester and live in West Virginia for two years after graduation (with some exceptions).
While the national free community college experiment is still new, results are encouraging. Tennessee Promise, launched in 2015, provides two years of tuition-free attendance at an in-state community or technical college. Data on the first cohort of students to go through the program revealed that in the first two years, 56 percent had graduated, remained in school or transferred to another university — compared to 39 percent of high school graduates who weren’t in the program.
Finding ways to reduce other community college costs
While community college tuition is generally low, it’s only part of the costs students must budget for. Textbook costs are actually higher, on average, for community college students vs. those at public four-year colleges, the College Board has found: $1,420 per year compared to $1,250. That’s 40 percent of what the average community college tuition costs.
Salt Lake Community College seeks to lift this burden from students by offering more than 1,000 class sections using open educational resources. These are materials that exist in the public domain or have an open license, allowing students to legally download, copy, and share them. In three years, college officials say, around 35,000 students have saved nearly $3 million by using open educational resources.
Tuition insurance, too, can be a vital budgeting tool for community college students who can’t afford to lose their hard-earned education investment in case of an unexpected withdrawal from school. Due to lower tuition costs, insuring the semester is less expensive also.
Community colleges will have to continue finding innovative ways to serve students if they are to meet the lofty goal they set for themselves in 2010. Six national community college organizations made a pledge “to produce 50 percent more students with high quality degrees and certificates by 2020, while increasing access and quality.” The timing is important: 2020 is also the year in which the U.S. will see a shortage of 5 million workers who have technical certificates and credentials, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.