Students who enter community colleges with vague goals and shaky academic backgrounds often end up stuck in remedial courses or embarking on "a meandering path through an overwhelming number of course options," according to a new breed of completion crusaders who are seeking to goose more students along the education pipeline.
In presentations here on Monday during the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, two groups that are heavily supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described their efforts, working with state policy makers and higher-education associations, to create structured pathways to graduation.
Three community-college leaders, from North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, described the strategies they're pursuing as pilot campuses of a five-year, Gates-supported effort called Completion by Design, which seeks to improve success rates for low-income community-college students.
Among the changes they have put in place are mandatory student advising and highly structured course sequences that include general-education electives recommended by department chairs.
Leaders of a Gates-supported nonprofit organization, Jobs for the Future, described how they have worked with state education associations and policy makers to promote an agenda that includes streamlining and shrinking remedial-education requirements. Getting students into credit-bearing courses as quickly as possible makes it more likely that they'll have the momentum they need to succeed, leaders of that effort argue.
Many students who end up in remedial courses don't need to be there, but they don't realize the importance of the tests that colleges often use as the sole placement criterion, said Gretchen Schmidt, a program director at Jobs for the Future.
"They didn't prepare, they had kids in the hall running around, or they rushed through the test to get back to work … and as a result they ended up two levels down" in developmental courses.
Limits on Remediation
Armed with data showing that students who start out in remedial education are far more likely to drop out, North Carolina's Board of Community Colleges this year adopted new rules allowing students who have a minimum grade-point average of 2.6 to skip the placement tests for remedial education. Those students are determined to be ready for college.
Some states have gone further. Connecticut lawmakers approved legislation last year limiting state-supported remedial education to a single stand-alone course, while lawmakers in Florida are considering proposals to cut off nearly all support for stand-alone remedial education.
Lenore P. Rodicio, director of Miami Dade College's Completion by Design effort, worries that's going too far.
"Seventy percent of our students come in needing some kind of remedial education, many of them from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and this could close the door to them," she said.
Her college offers a one-week boot camp for students who place into remedial education to allow them to zero in on the skills they need to improve, and it's looking at other ways to get students into credit-bearing courses faster.
In another session on Monday, Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the nation's largest higher-education system, described how the California Community Colleges have worked to improve the system's completion rates at a time of enrollment pressures and budget cuts.
The system, with about 2.4 million students, enrolls 20 percent of the nation's community-college students.
The system's state support has been cut by about $1.5-billion over the last four years, he said. "As a result, we experienced an assault on access at a time we could least afford it."
Colleges have had to cut sections and can't serve all the students who are applying. Enrollment has slid 14 percent since its high of 2.9 million in 2008. The result, Mr. Harris said, has been a brain drain to other states and a source of frustration for students who can't get into what has traditionally been an open-access college system.
Seventy-seven percent of incoming students need remedial classes, according to system officials, and when that extends over two or three semesters, that's as far as many students go.
"Time is the enemy of successful completion," said Linda Michalowski, the system's vice chancellor for student affairs. "The longer students take, the more likely it is that life will intervene and they'll go off track."
Lessons From California
Last year the California system's Board of Governors approved a "student-success agenda" to improve completion rates while maintaining a commitment to broad access. As part of that effort, it published a scorecard that breaks down, by gender, age, and ethnicity, how colleges are performing in remedial education, job training, student retention, graduation, and completion.
The results are often sobering. Seventy-one percent of students who were prepared for college completed a degree or certificate in six years, compared with just 41 percent of those who needed remediation.
"These are issues that people often don't want to talk about in the light of day," said Mr. Harris.
With the publication of the scorecard, the community-college system is not only the nation's largest educational system, but one of the most transparent, he added. The scorecard acknowledges "that we know about these gaps, we're troubled by them" and working to plug them, the chancellor said.
Among the recommendations the system came up with are mandatory early counseling in which students outline both education and career goals, dropping reliance on a single test to place students in remedial courses, and changing the registration-priority system to make room for new students and push slackers to the end of the line.
Correction (4/23/2013, 12:47 p.m.): This article originally misidentified Jobs for the Future. It is a nonprofit organization, not a project, and it receives financial support from other sources, not just the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.