By Paul Bradley
Just last week that President Obama gave community colleges a prominent spot in his State of the Union address, placing in the national spotlight the growing role of institutions that have long been unloved and underappreciated.
But now comes a more sobering assessment of community colleges, revealing sharp incongruities between what colleges are doing and what students need to reach their academic goals.
New survey results from the widely respected Center for Community College Student Engagement found that community college officials often know what works in boosting student success, but have difficulty reaching large swaths of students because of financial constraints and institutional barriers.
For example, the report found that while 74 percent of students report that they were required to take an academic placement test, only 28 percent said they used materials or resources provided by the college to prepare for those tests. And while 44 percent of the colleges taking part in the survey said they offered some sort of test preparation, only 13 percent make such test preparation mandatory.
Those gaps leave lots of room for improvement, said CCCSE director Kay M. McClenney.
“These colleges have to better, and they clearly can,” she said. “To make needed progress, colleges must focus their efforts on those educational practices that produce the greatest positive impact for the largest possible number of students.”
The report credits colleges for developing imaginative and effective programs. It tracks how “promising practices” for encouraging student success are being used at more than 200 participating colleges.
But it also says the practices are reaching a small fraction of community college students.
“Community colleges across the country have created innovative, data-informed programs that are models for educating underprepared students, engaging traditionally underserved students, and helping students from all backgrounds succeed,” the report says. “However, because most of these programs have limited scope, the field now has pockets of success rather than widespread improvement. Turning these many small accomplishments into broad achievement — and improved completion rates — depends on bringing effective programs to scale.”
The CCCSE report — entitled “A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success” — is part of a new initiative to identify and promote high-impact practices in community colleges. Drawing on data from students, faculty members, and colleges, it combines data from four surveys into a multiyear project: the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the Survey of Entering Student Engagement, the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement and the new Community College Institutional Survey.
The initiative strives to identify promising practices for which there is emerging evidence of success: research from the field and data showing improvement on an array of metrics, such as course completion, retention, and graduation.
The report identified 13 promising practices and said they are working well. But because they are not mandatory, they fall short of their potential.
The survey also found an emerging consensus that certain design principles are critical for student success. The principles include:
* A strong start. Focusing attention on the front door of the college — ensuring that students’ earliest contacts and first weeks incorporate experiences that will foster personal connections and enhance their chances of success
* Clear, coherent pathways. The many choices and options students face as they endeavor to navigate through college systems can create unnecessary confusion and inhibit students’ success. Colleges can improve student success by creating coherent pathways that help students move through an engaging collegiate experience.
* Integrated support. Student success can be improved by connecting with students in the classroom. This means building support, such as skills development and supplemental instruction, into coursework rather than referring students to services that are separate from the learning experience.
* High expectations and high support. Students do their best when the bar is high but within reach. Setting a high standard and then giving students the necessary support — academic planning, academic support, financial aid, and so on — makes the standard attainable.
* Design for scale. Bringing practices to scale requires a long-term commitment of time and money. Securing and maintaining this commitment requires significant political, financial, and human capital. In addition to allocating — and reallocating — available funding, colleges must genuinely involve faculty, staff, and students.
For colleges, embracing such principles can be difficult but rewarding, McClenney said, and will require something of a culture change and some tough choices.
“Colleges are already doing the easy, low-cost things,” she said. “Now they have to figure out how to bring more complex things to scale to reach the largest number of students possible.”
The report can be found at www.cccse.org.