States tackle question of how to boost college completion rates for low-income students

New report shows how states like North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida are creating 'structured pathways' to help community college students make it through a system where most fail to graduate.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/STAFF
Students study in the bookstore at Northern Virginia Community College on April 30, 2014 in Annandale, Va. The college helps students go on to four-year degrees through a program called Pathway to to the Baccalaureate.

Community college students need better guidance and clearer pathways to a degree if significant numbers of low-income students are to graduate with a high-value credential, according to a report, released Thursday by Jobs for the Future (JFF), which, which works to improve college and career training for disadvantaged students. 

Despite many efforts and investment to boost college degree attainment, community colleges – which educate about 44 percent of the nation’s low-income students – have yet to make a dent in national graduation rates. 

In 2014, only 39.1 percent of student who had entered community colleges six years before had completed a degree or certificate, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, down slightly from 39.8 percent in 2013.

A number of colleges have made changes that are starting to lead more students to degrees, but states need "integrated reform strategies" to scale up promising new approaches, the report concludes.

“We know that colleges can redesign themselves in ways that … improve student success … [but] there is no silver bullet,” says Lara Couturier, JFF’s program director. “We need to look more holistically at the environment in which the colleges are operating," she says. 

Eight to 10 states already have a group of community colleges that are creating new “structured pathways” for students, Ms. Couturier estimates. These include elements such as counseling about which courses will help them earn the degree they seek, faster tracks to credit-bearing courses while they catch up on academic skills, and easier ways to transfer credits to four-year institutions

North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida are highlighted in the report because of their involvement in Completion by Design, a community-college redesign effort supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and JFF.

Research has shown the promise of structured pathways. For instance, in a study tracking 62,000 entering students in Washington State’s community colleges over seven years, only about half entered a “concentration” by passing three or more college-level classes in a single field. Students who did enter a concentration earned a certificate or degree, or transferred to a four-year school, at a much higher rate – about 50 percent – compared with less than 30 percent for those who did not, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

Here are some examples of what the three states are doing to make the path to a degree more efficient, according to JFF’s “Policy Meets Pathways” report:

North Carolina

State officials revised an outdated articulation agreement to lead to better transfer of credits from community colleges to public four-year institutions, including maps of academic paths that note courses guaranteed to transfer. 

Developmental courses (formerly known as remedial) have also been redesigned to help students move through more quickly and get on to credit-bearing courses. The state also started allowing colleges to use high school GPAs, in addition to standardized tests and other measures, to place incoming students in the right level of coursework.

The new placement policy “has had a real impact,” says Ed Bowling, executive director of Completion by Design in North Carolina. Colleges are finding that students placed in credit-bearing courses because of their high school achievement are generally doing as well as those who were placed there through more-traditional measures. 

A project to improve the math curriculum in North Carolina reduces the number of “gateway” courses from 14 to five – a move that offers clearer expectations for students and improves their ability to transfer credits.

Around the country, reforms in developmental education, particularly in math, are gaining steam because studies have started to show significant “increases in the number of students who successfully get through college-level math course in their first year,” which is expected to lead to more degree completion, says Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia’s CCRC. 

Completion by Design (CBD) in North Carolina started with five community colleges that wanted to embrace the structured pathways approach. Now, Mr. Bowling says, “We’re taking what we learned … and expanding across the state.”

Through the state’s Student Success Learning Institute, college leaders can learn the philosophy of CBD and get technical support. So far, 41 of the 58 community colleges in North Carolina have begun implementing many of the structured pathways reforms. 


The Ohio Math Initiative has created three new math pathways, with courses that transfer to state four-year colleges and universities, replacing an old structure that did not lead to many transferred credits.

This fall, Ohio shifted to a new outcomes-based funding system for community colleges. State funding is now related to various measures such as how many students earn a certain number of credits, complete their associate degree, or transfer to a four-year institution.

Each community college is expected to come up with detailed strategies for how to improve completion of certificates and degrees.

The combination of those two policies is a useful way of “effectively weaving all completion-focused reforms into a larger, visionary design,” the JFF report notes. 

At least 25 states already do performance-based higher education funding to some degree, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports.

There is some skepticism about outcomes-based funding, because “it’s very difficult to capture the multidimensional performance of a college … and the main danger is you will give colleges the incentive to be more selective,” so that it’s easier to produce better results, says Mr. Bailey. 

But to offset that danger, Bailey says, policymakers can take into account the socioeconomic characteristics of students or compare colleges to their own initial benchmarks to measure progress.

In Ohio, to ensure a focus on continued access for disadvantaged students, some of the factors community colleges can be awarded for include students completing developmental courses, or attempting college-level math or English courses, NCSL reports.


A law in Florida, SB 1720, requires a number of changes in the state’s colleges to boost degree completion.

It sets up “meta-majors” – sets of courses that meet academic requirements for various disciplines, such as business, education, and health sciences – and requires students to select a meta-major when they enroll.

It also requires colleges to speed up developmental education through a variety of research-based approaches, and to track student outcomes.

Students testing below college level have to receive comprehensive advising.

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