Raise the community college graduation rate

Roughly half of all those in college attend a community college, yet the graduation rate is dismal at these two-year schools. They must focus on student completion. Increasing the community college graduation rate is a matter of national competitiveness and job retraining.

’Tis the season for cap and gown, but at community colleges, many of the students won’t graduate on time – or ever.

America’s nearly 1,200 community colleges are the workhorses of higher education, allowing open access to all who desire to learn. Of all students in college, about 45 percent attend these institutions, which were designed for a fast, two-year time of study to earn an associate degree.

High unemployment and the cost of four-year colleges have spurred record enrollment at these schools – but they’re failing to graduate students in high numbers and on time. About half will drop out before their second year. Only 25 percent finish in three years. Those who do graduate take an average of five years to complete their degrees.

Last summer, President Obama focused on these affordable colleges that disproportionately serve the poor, minorities, working adults, and parents. He correctly saw their potential to prepare people for a job market that increasingly demands a college degree. (Click here for a related Monitor editorial.) In keeping with his emphasis on education, Mr. Obama set a national goal of raising the number of community college graduates by 5 million by the end of the decade. And he pledged $12 billion to the effort.

It was an unprecedented promise to these schools, which are seeing their budgets cut by cash-strapped states just as students flood their campuses. For the first time, many community colleges are actually having to turn students away – or even offer courses late at night.

(Click here for a related Monitor editorial on e-learning.)

Unfortunately, Congress agreed to provide only $2 billion of the president’s plan, mostly for job training – a traditional and needed role of community colleges. With long-term unemployment ahead, these colleges are critical to retraining America’s workforce.

Admirably, to meet Obama’s goal, the nation’s community colleges have pledged to increase the graduation rate by 50 percent – even without the remaining $10 billion. Collectively, they appear ready to look beyond their traditional focus on “open access” to higher completion rates and educational results.

The colleges are also awakening to the need to collect data on what works and to make decisions based on their findings.

Change is percolating. A six-year-old privately funded effort, Achieving the Dream, is helping more than 100 community colleges use student-achievement data to guide new ways to increase graduations and transfers to four-year colleges.

Evidence shows that too many course choices can overwhelm a new student, as can traditional class schedules, which are not always geared toward work or parenting obligations. And the longer college study drags on, the less the likelihood of finishing. Sixty percent of students take remedial courses at community colleges, but they also get bogged down in these noncredit classes. Now colleges are looking at faster and more flexible formats for this extra help.

Congress should find a way to fund the rest of the money the president promised community colleges. Yes, these schools are primarily a local endeavor, but they serve the national interest in creating a competitive workforce. And like Obama’s “race to the top” funding for public K-12 schools, the federal community college program was meant to encourage and reward innovative programs that work, so that they can be emulated across the country.

In the meantime, however, community colleges should continue to change their culture to a more results-oriented approach – a strategy that K-12 schools began years ago.

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