Fulfilling the Promise of Community Colleges

America’s community colleges hold great promise in helping disadvantaged students gain the credentials they need for success in today’s job market. But completion rates among community college students are low. Many who do finish earn credentials with no value in the job market. And many accumulate debt that can lead to defaults.

How can community college leaders improve success rates, and what can federal and state policymakers do to help? Progressives often argue that the institutions need more funding, since they cannot now afford to provide the necessary supports and services for disadvantaged students with substantial need. Conservatives argue that the colleges need stronger incentives to respond to the job market, by tying state funding to student performance. We have at least some sympathy for both of these views.

But our recent research on community colleges in Kentucky raises another issue: the extent to which the pathways students choose affect their rates of success. By “pathways” we mean the fields of study they choose and the credentials they pursue (certificates, associate’s or bachelor’s degrees), along with how much momentum they gain in early credit attainment, how often they switch fields, and their overall performance.

These factors strongly influence students’ chances of success in community colleges. Some fields of study—such as health care, applied STEM, and certificates more broadly—produce higher completion rates and stronger post-graduation earnings. Switching fields can be helpful, but less so if students switch frequently or too late to accumulate the needed courses and credits within fields. And gaining early momentum, by earning credits in the first year of enrollment, helps as well.

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Yet students often make choices that are not well informed by these facts. Men, for instance, choose health care much less frequently than women, despite their high odds of success there, while some colleges lack the capacity to handle more students in health-related fields. Students deemed “not college-ready” at matriculation rarely enroll in certificate programs (shorter-term and skill-oriented credentials), despite their much greater chance of success in the programs. At the same time, field-switching is too prevalent. And because many students can’t afford to attend school full-time, or they have difficulty passing general-education classes, they earn too few credits early in their community college careers.

To address these challenges, students need much more guidance as they choose fields and courses of study, so they focus on high-demand credentials and avoid the expense of switching programs. And guidance continues to be important after students start their community college careers; with additional information about students’ strengths and weaknesses, advisors can guide them towards fields where they’ll find success.

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Indeed, more community colleges should experiment with (and evaluate) “guided pathways”—building additional curriculum structure and student guidance into the experiences of every community college student. And if more students switch into occupational fields and certificate programs valued by employers as a result, as will likely be the case when students get more guidance, colleges will need to create sufficient instructional capacity in these areas to meet higher student demand.

Other practices would no doubt help as well. Reforming developmental (or remedial) programs at colleges would enable students to more quickly pass non-credit-bearing classes. Giving more students stipends for living expenses, or opportunities for compensated work-based learning, would allow them to take more classes, increasing their chances of graduation. Well-designed supports, like tutoring and childcare assistance, as well as frequent “nudges” (such as supportive text messages and calls from academic coaches) to keep them on track, would help too.

Of course, many community college presidents will agree with all of these recommendations, but argue that they lack sufficient resources to implement them. And it’s true, community colleges receive much less funding from states per student that do four-year institutions, while the students they serve generally have greater needs.

States should therefore invest more resources directly into community colleges that provide strong guidance and the other needed support services. More funding for stipends and work-based learning would help, as would money for tutors and student coaches. Building more instructional capacity in high-demand fields is important, too. The federal government should encourage these steps when it reauthorizes the Higher Education Act.

Harry J. Holzer is the LaFarge SJ Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Zeyu Xu is a managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research. 

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.