Over 40% of American undergraduates attend a community college, and the popularity and praise of two-year programs are on the rise. As students and parents consider the cost-benefit dynamic associated with expensive four-year schools, community colleges provide an appealing alternative, requiring smaller investments of time and money.
Generally, politicians and policy makers promote two-year schools. Both Presidents Obama and Trump have called for greater investment in this area (although Trump specifically favors “vocational” programs). Meanwhile, states as diverse as Oregon, Tennessee, and Rhode Island have implemented scholarship programs which provide free (or nearly-free) access to community colleges. Watch for other states to move in this direction.
Formerly-stigmatized community colleges now have cheerleaders in powerful places. The Department of Education’s website explains to students why community college may be “perfect” for you, citing the affordability, flexibility, and portability associated with these programs. Separately, the Chronicle of Higher Education tells its academic audience that “community colleges are good for you”–they are a “crucial asset” which makes it easier for students to gain access to four-year degree programs.
Hidden by behind all of this celebration of two-year colleges, however, lies a little-known failure: only 39% of students who start these programs achieve a credential of any type within ten years, according to a report by the College Board. (As their report notes, some studies place the completion rate much lower.) By contrast, about 60% of students in four-year programs gain a degree within six years.
One might attribute the poor completion rate to the practical needs of students, who may not always seek degrees, but may instead desire partial or targeted training in specific areas. However, this is gainsaid by students’ own reports of their goals in entering two-year programs: According to one study, 81% of students entering community college hope to attain a four-year degree. Most of them will not.
Why are community college students falling so far short of their initial goals? A recent study from the Brookings Institution answers this question and offers practical policy recommendations to address the problem.
In the Brookings report, author Elizabeth Mann Levesque attributes the low completion rate to “structural and motivational barriers” which hinder students.
She describes the typical structure of community colleges as “cafeteria-style,” where students encounter disparate and disorganized course offerings rather than guided learning pathways. Levesque writes:
Completing a credential or degree requires students to sort through an overwhelming amount of information to make complicated decisions, such as what to major in, what courses to take to satisfy program requirements, whether and how to get involved in a job training program, whether and how to transfer to a four-year program, and what kind of job to pursue after graduation, just to name a few.
Furthermore, students are largely on their own in the face of this challenge due to minimal advising resources: One study estimates the adviser-student ratio between 800 and 1,200 to 1.
This lack of structure contributes to the other main hindrance to completion: the motivational barrier. The cafeteria-style hodgepodge dispirits students as it undercuts their “expectancy value,” or their recognition of the direct payoff for what they’re doing.
Levesque writes, “For students to stay motivated to persist on their academic trajectory, they need to both see the destination (the careers and earnings an education will provide) and the pathway to get there (the connections between what they are doing in school and what they would like to achieve).” Currently, students tend to see neither the destination nor the pathway.
Levesque proposes several policy recommendations to address the structural and motivational barriers and thereby improve the prospects for community college students. She especially encourages “expectancy value interventions,” where teachers, staff, and/or employers engage with students frequently to “help students draw connections between their coursework and their lives.”
In fact, nurturing expectancy value doesn’t even require interaction with a mentor: one study showed that simply asking students to write essays reflecting on the relevance of their studies boosted their appreciation for the utility value of their education.
Additionally, Levesque recommends experimentation with new strategies for student engagement, including programs such as e-advising or motivational “nudging” via text message.
Specific programs aside, she recognizes the great opportunities for lessons-learned and bestpractice development among peer institutions as colleges explore “rigorous” experimentations. She writes:
Ultimately, partnerships between researchers, colleges, and employers can lead to programs based on a deep understanding of the student population, the college system, and the local labor market. Working together, these partners can develop evidence-based innovations, continuously improve their programs, and share their results with the wider research, policy, and education communities. This work can help create a shared road map to reducing barriers to community college completion.
An old joke says that one can’t cheat at community college because the people he would cheat from also attend community college. As community college dean Matt Reed recently wrote in Inside Higher Education, however, “Community colleges are more representative of American higher education than are Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. You wouldn’t know it from press coverage, but it’s true.” Levesque’s study provides the dual benefits of exposing the hidden failure these essential institutions and prescribing remedies to make them functional.