by Nadine Alami
In January 2015, President Obama announced his plan for tuition-free community college, thus offering hope and providing educational opportunity to many American students and families. The initiative sends powerful messages on the affordability of education in the United States and stresses the significance of postsecondary degree attainment. The ten-year $60 billion plan could help around nine million students graduate with a college degree (The White House, 2015), at a time when earning a postsecondary degree is a prerequisite for the growing jobs in the new economy. Today half of the jobs require postsecondary education and college graduates earn as twice as workers with high school diplomas (Tanner, 2011). But with significantly low completion rates, cost is only part of the problem at community colleges (Community College Research Center, 2015). If Obama’s free community college initiative was fully funded by federal and state governments, community colleges will be required to react wisely to accommodate the learning and developmental needs of the anticipated large numbers of students.
Whether considered an extension to high school years or the first two years of university studies, community colleges are distinguished from other postsecondary institutions in many aspects. They are open-access and nonselective institutions by definition (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker, 2013), hence providing affordable education to all segments of the society. Students apply to community colleges for a variety of reasons including updating their skills, job training, or to transfer to four-year colleges. Almost half of all undergraduates in the United Sates were enrolled in 1200 institutions nationwide during fall 2008 (Brown, 2012). In addition, the student body at these institutions is considerably unique and diverse. While 60% of the students are enrolled on a part-time basis, the average age of those enrolled in 2008 was 28 (Brown, 2012). Moreover, 44% of all African American students, 52% of Hispanic students, 55% of Native American students, and 45% of Asian/Pacific Islanders are registered in community colleges (Brown, 2012).
In the past few years, enrollment proliferated substantially in community colleges with an average increase of 11% between 2008 and 2009 (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). But the effort to expand enrollment at low cost did not increase completion rates. Although a significant percentage of students enroll in community colleges with the intention to receive some kind of credential (Martin, Galentino, & Townsend, 2014), they make little progress towards earning a certificate or degree, thus demonstrating a disconnect between aspirations and achievement. In 2010, only 28% of students enrolled graduated with a certificate or degree within three years and around 45% did so after six years (Brown, 2012). In their book Crossing the Finish Line, Bowen, Chingnos, and McPherson (2009) consider that dropout rates are linked to race, gender, and socioeconomic status, especially that non-white students have generally lower graduation rates than non-minority students (Martin et al., 2014). Therefore, although community colleges embrace a mission of “democratizing” (Goldrick-Rab, 2010, p. 437) opportunities, completion rates are still significantly low and imply drastic policy implications.
Access, a Prelude to Success?
Access and success do not necessarily mutually exist. If President Obama’s initiative was fully funded, it will provide more access to community colleges, but will also require that colleges respond to other major issues like student support, retention, success, and completion. Although the initiative brings more attention and resources to community colleges, several other issues need to be addressed to reap its benefit, especially that Pell grants today cover up to $5,730 of college expenses for the lowest income students, while the average community college costs $4000 (Bailey, 2002). Therefore, decreasing costs will not necessarily increase graduation. The critical work with this plan would be to increase success and completion rates, knowing that the free college initiative addresses issues of performance, progress, and completion (Community College Research Center, 2015). These stipulations would hopefully push colleges to create better policies that would contribute to enhanced students’ development and outcomes.
For community colleges to address students’ needs, they are required to be well informed about their backgrounds and characteristics, especially that students at community colleges face many more challenges than those at four-year institutions. Research indicates that minority student groups who are less academically prepared and who originate from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to persist in colleges (Martin et al., 2014). Another major difference between community college students and those at four-year institutions is the amount of time spent at work while attending classes (Townsend & Twombly, 2007). In conclusion, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) found that two-year community college students are less likely to persist than four-year college students.
With President Obama’s current initiative, students would have the chance to work less, especially if their tuition cost is waived and if they can continue using the Pell grants to cover their expenses. If students work fewer hours, chances for success would increase (Martin et al., 2014). Shifting the focus of these individuals from being primarily workers to students might have a positive impact on success and retention, especially that research indicates that part-time students who spend long hours at work find difficulty in keeping up with their studies, and might consequently drop out (Brown, 2012). Upon getting the chance to work fewer hours, students should be encouraged by community college officials to be full-time students pursuing15 credits per semester instead of 12 credits. In this case, students will have a greater chance to attain their degree within three years of enrollment, thus enhancing not only completion rates, but also the pace towards completion.
Student Development Models for Community College Students
It is essential to note that the majority of research on student persistence has been conducted on traditional students at four-year institutions. Tinto’s (1975) model of student persistence focused on the relationship between student characteristics, goal commitment, integration, and institutional commitment as factors influencing persistence. But according to Braxton, Hirsch, and McClendon (2004), this model does not fit non-traditional students except in terms of student characteristics and its role in persistence. According to a recent study (Martin et al., 2014), students who are self-empowered with clear goals and high motivation are successful despite their academic deficiencies. Hence, predictors of low persistence may be overcome with sufficient motivation and empowerment from student development professionals at colleges. It is the community college’s responsibility to set procedures and practices to nurture these characteristics. Whether on the administrative guidance level, on the teaching level, or on the institutional environment level, programs should be put in place to foster these student characteristics.
Besides, student development programs at four-year colleges serve more homogeneous groups than at community colleges (Ortiz, 1995). Hence, student development professionals at two-year community colleges need to possess the ability of working with different types of students. Although the existing theories in student development literature apply to segments of traditional students, it is hard to operate without minimal theoretical guidance. Chickering and Reisser (1993) emphasize the importance of student autonomy and mastering intellectual, physical, and social competence. They consider that these tasks allow students to achieve a well-rounded identity that will facilitate development at college. Developing identity in underrepresented students may be challenging though (Ortiz, 1995). Underrepresented students may find it difficult to make friends in new environments, thus leading to isolation in these new environments. Richardson and Skinner (Ortiz, 1995) consider that this is a major reason why students choose a part time schedule sometimes. To help these underrepresented groups in developing identity and competence, student development professionals are responsible for creating support networks that may help provide similar support to that at their home community. Developing support groups and ethnic student organizations may largely help integrate these students into the institutional environment. On the other side, nontraditional aged students at community colleges are more goal-oriented, but they may experience feelings of incompetence and challenge to attain their goals due to their age. Supporting these groups of students by providing adequate career networks and guiding workshops would also be necessary to ensure their development.
Bowen et al. (2009) describe academic preparedness as the major determinant in educational attainment. So in response to students’ academic needs, ensuring academic preparedness is crucial. In 1996, 57% of community colleges reported the academic preparedness of their newly admitted students as poor (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). In addition, 60% of new students participate in at least one remedial course (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011). The significance of remedial courses stems from the fact that some of them like English and Math act as “gatekeepers” (Goldrick-Rab, 2010, p. 448) to college completion. Additionally, studies pinpoint that only one-quarter of students taking their first remedial complete it successfully due to the cost and time burden they set (Brown, 2012). Students who pass these courses and who get the chance to join higher-level courses have better chances of progressing towards completion (Fike & Fike, 2008). This is a serious challenge for community colleges as it may significantly cut off students’ pathways to their dream degree before they have even started. Besides, the economy loses around $2.3 billion from college dropouts and lost potential earning (Brown, 2012). In response, community college administrators should seek ways to reduce the burden of these developmental courses in order to increase success and persistence.
The problem of low completion in developmental courses may be partially due to the misalignment of curriculum between high schools and community colleges. Student success may be improved if placement exams are better aligned with high school curriculum, especially in Math and English. Community college administrators should share their expectations from high school graduates with school teachers and administrators, in an attempt to decrease the burden of academic failure in remedial courses.
In addition, since developmental courses are intensive in nature, they should be contextualized and targeted towards the specific learning styles and needs of students. Accurately identifying students’ deficiencies and necessities would serve students better and would also speed up their transition to the postsecondary programs. For example, the Math Jam program at Pasadena City College in California is a two-week free summer program in Math for new students (Brown, 2012). It provides innovative fast-track instruction, orientation, and support services to increase student achievement. Since its commencement in 2006, 842 students successfully completed Math Jam. This demonstrates that innovative approaches in remediation and preparation are required to facilitate student progress.
Moreover, some studies have pointed out to the importance of using multiple assessment measures besides the standardized exams to ensure better outcomes (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011). For example, using high school transcripts and writing samples may provide sufficient information and would also allow for the appropriate course of action in terms of assigning remediation to students. In addition, giving students the chance to enroll in accelerated remedial education may help progress towards graduation (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2014).
Guidance and Support
Most students reach community colleges with completion as their goal. But, too often, students lack the ability to navigate the academic environment. Frequently, students do not possess the understanding and the information about course prerequisites, curriculum, and general requirements. This is not unique to community colleges, but also widely exists in four-year institutions (Brown, 2012). It is the colleges’ responsibility to ensure the acquaintance of every new student to the new educational experience. New student orientation is a gateway that may help improve student success and completion (Bailey, 2002). Orientation sessions, counseling, and curriculum guides might all support students to persist throughout their college years. Although these additional resources may incur a cost on colleges, investing in students who do not persist constitutes a larger financial loss for institutions (Cohen et al., 2013).
Providing adequate support services is crucial in student satisfaction and retention. Due to the wide range of information and the little advising, studies show that a fair proportion of students in community colleges take courses that they do not need, hence spending more time in college and eventually dropping out (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). Additionally, the concentration of poor and minority students with other poor and minority students risks the level of college awareness and knowledge due to potential isolation from other advantaged students (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Coca, 2009). Moreover, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are less equipped to make good choices when confronted with several pathways and options (Roderick et al., 2009). To avoid ineffective choices, Bailey (2002) calls for adequate course guidance and clear pathways in order to simplify students’ choices without limiting their options.
Therefore, it would be vital to provide community college students with enough support through orientation courses that teach study skills, time management skills, and effective college habits. It is also essential to try to involve parents in student advising and to ensure a smaller student-counselor ratio to guarantee personalized guidance for all students.
The Role of Faculty
Ensuring student success and development also requires that community colleges pay special attention to core functions such as teaching. Although there is vigorous and ample research on the effect of teachers on student outcomes in K-12, the role of faculty in community colleges is often neglected in studies (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). The conditions under which faculty members work, including reliance on adjunct faculty due to lack of resources, lack of incentives, and lack of professional development, are usually linked to student outcomes (Roderick et al., 2009). Community college faculty members, like all professors, need resources and opportunities for curriculum planning and development in addition to workshops and training on how to use new technology and set up proper assessment techniques.
Therefore, the quality of teaching at community colleges is generally debated (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). Aside from the lack of training and competency, heterogeneous student backgrounds and older student age groups make the job of teachers more challenging. Given this environment, faculty members at community colleges need to make the effort to engage students by accommodating the different learning styles students have (Svinicki, 1999) and by contextualizing knowledge so that it relates to the backgrounds and characteristics of their students. As per Dewey (1916), contextual learning that relates subject matter to real life situations motivates students and helps them make connections between theoretical knowledge and its application. Furthermore, research indicates that instruction for adults needs to be linked to practical applications especially in remedial level courses (Goldrick-Rab, 2010).
Another significant issue at community colleges is the shortage of faculty in science, technology, engineering, math, and nursing majors (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). This shortage is necessitating the recruitment of younger and less experienced faculty who very often lack effective pedagogical skills to engage students appropriately (Brown, 2012). Students in developmental courses need psychological support as much as they need basic skills instruction, for they often lack the confidence and motivation to succeed. That is why it is imperative to involve and train faculty to possess specialized teaching and intervention skills, especially that community colleges have the benefit of being solely teaching institutions unlike four-year research universities. For example, faculty members at Montgomery County Community College are required to redesign and reconsider teaching approaches to developmental courses in order to positively influence student achievement (Brown, 2012). By involving faculty in solutions to existing problems, student success rates may increase.
Overall President Obama’s initiative presents a golden opportunity for community colleges and students alike. In their turn, community colleges will be required to rethink institutional policies and to adopt an aggressive response to student needs. Lessening institutional barriers is a crucial matter in students’ success and progress at community colleges. Barriers like late registration that discourages student timely progress or payment for graduation that incurs additional costs should be reconsidered. With proper facilities and resources in place, community colleges may also adopt innovative solutions that include online teaching. Similar creative solutions would seriously reduce the problem of scheduling for working students. Yet, it is indispensible to note that community colleges will require support and resources to improve student outcomes. Lack of resources to fund reform and state-of-the-art practices in teaching and student services (Goldrick-Rab, 2010) should not be ignored.
While the debates on college access are giving way to debates on completion, relevance of student learning, and accountability (Brown, 2012), the recent proposal for tuition-free college provides an opportunity for community colleges to channel their efforts towards curricular reform and student success. The recent initiative for free community college along with President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative (AGI) in 2009 to increase educational attainment in the United States by 2020 (Mullin, 2012), also present an indisputable occasion to millions of American students to benefit from an affordable postsecondary degree and a chance to join an increasingly competitive knowledge society.
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