Community colleges have historically been viewed as second fiddle to four-year institutions. But in recent years they have been pulled into the spotlight for being particularly well-positioned to meet growing demand among previously underserved markets of postsecondary students, namely adult learners.
That attention has led educators and policymakers to see enrollees in the nation's some 1,103 community colleges — about half the students in higher ed today — as being in need of more customized instruction, better support systems and clearer pathways to a workforce that is clamoring for them.
Underlying the need for more support is the "dizzying array" of demands these students face, according to a recent survey of more than 50,000 students at 10 community colleges. They include the need to hold a job and meet the needs of family, as well as academic obstacles ranging from costly, ineffective remedial classes to poorly designed online courses that don't offer enough help.
What's more, pushback on rising tuition prices and growth in free college initiatives has put community colleges in a position to need to cater to a wide variety of students. Some suggest this change has triggered an "identity crisis" within those institutions, with many being asked to shift resources to efficiently provide job-specific degrees and skill sets as well as clearer transfer paths to a four-year degree.
In response, community colleges are adopting structured pathways and a case-management model that offers broad academic and personal supports, said Josh Wyner, vice president at The Aspen Institute and founder and executive director of its College Excellence Program.
"About 80% of community college students say they want a degree, but only about 20% complete it. Life gets in the way," he said. "They need clear, efficient, useful pathways, and sitting alongside them they need support so they have real momentum toward their degree and beyond."
Research increasingly shows college students are more successful when they are offered a "guided pathway" through their coursework, Wyner said. That concept is the basis of a new project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
It will provide a framework for those kinds of pathways and will work with 20 community colleges to implement them.
Wyner highlights the Alamo Colleges District, a five-college system in the San Antonio area, that enrolls some 98,000 students and has structured its guided pathway around several benchmarks to keep students on track. For example, students must choose a major after they earn 30 credits and meet with counselors who carry unusually low caseloads of 350-to-1. In response, the college's three-year graduation/transfer rate rose from 28% in 2011 to 47% in 2015, Wyner noted.
In South Dakota, Mitchell Technical Institute's (MTI) focus on such pathways helped it reach a 77% four-year graduation/transfer rate, well above the range of metrics used to gauge student persistence at community colleges.
Most of its roughly 450 graduates each year have a job within six months, according to its president, Mark Wilson. He attributed the success to an unusually close relationship with employers in the area who help the institute develop specific job-rich fields of study and up-to-date curriculum and then hire students into internships and full-time roles.
"Current economic conditions are very favorable for our graduates," Wilson said. "There is strong competition for highly skilled workers, so we're working hard to recruit and educate as many future technicians as we can."
MTI is one of 10 finalists for a $1 million award from The Aspen Institute for community colleges that serve as role models for access, graduation rates and outcomes in the workforce.
MTI program officials meet twice a year with workforce advisory committees to review their instruction and determine if courses should be added, revised or eliminated. A career center carefully monitors state labor data and employment reports from graduates and employers, interprets the information and provides students with details on wages and employment opportunities in particular careers. It also connects students to employers, including at job fairs, like one last month where some 100 companies met with the college's spring graduates.
Montgomery College, in suburban Washington, D.C., also offers similar employer-guided training in technical skills. In particular, it provides training for lower-level lab jobs at biotech companies and retrains tech workers with skills in that and other in-demand fields. One cybersecurity retraining program is designed to fill strong regional demand in that field, according to Sanjay Rai, the college's senior vice president for academic affairs.
"Community colleges were created to be very responsive to the needs of their regions, and that's even more critical today in our fast-moving digital economy," he said, noting that Montgomery College restructured itself several years ago to be more flexible to students' needs, allowing it to create pathways and programs without the approval process four-year colleges may require.
The college also works closely with The Universities at Shady Grove, a unique nearby campus it helped develop in 2000. There, nine Maryland public colleges offer its students and others that have a two-year degree with a path to a bachelor's degree in three dozen programs.
"Community colleges were created to be very responsive to the needs of their regions, and that's even more critical today in our fast-moving digital economy."
Senior vice president for academic affairs, Montgomery College
Pasadena City College (PCC), in California, improved advising for its 27,000 students with more contact and specific attention to their course selection and path to graduation or transfer, as well as to their academic performance and need for supports. And it paid off, said Cynthia Olivo, vice president of student services. Forty-one percent of students go on to a four-year college, well over the national rate for community college students who transfer within six years. More than half get their bachelor's in six years, she said, also above the national average of 42%.
Other community colleges offer courses team-taught by instructors at four-year institutions or have agreements that let students take courses there, said Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U president.
"These practices help to build social and cultural capital among community college students who have been underserved," she said, noting that it also helps keep them from having to retake courses at the four-year institution, which can add cost and be "a disincentive to completion."
Rounding out supports
Olivo said PCC employs about 100 graduate-level counseling program students each year as "coaches" who help students with issues that may hold them back but can be readily addressed, such as course selection or financial aid troubles.
The college also provides intensive training for faculty members, who Olivo said typically are excited about teaching the college's low-income and minority students but have themselves often had very different college and life experiences. A cohort of about 40 new faculty instructors meets each week throughout their first year to learn how to better interact with their students. (One annual lesson is from a faculty member who based her dissertation on writing a syllabus for nontraditional students.)
"We want them to learn about our students and what they need in the classroom, and not just about grading, the mailbox key and where the coffee machine is located," she said.
Other examples of addressing these students' needs come from Amarillo College, in Texas, which allows students who are placed in developmental courses to test out of them at any point. Other colleges allow students to take them concurrently or offer introductory classes with extra help instead, avoiding the additional expense they often cause. Amarillo also offers faster-paced eight-week courses designed for students with busy schedules.
And while the flexibility of online courses benefits some community college students, they have also reported difficulty navigating them. In response, PCC has added technical and academic support, which students can easily request online. Some courses have embedded graduate students to provide one-on-one assistance.
Reframing the issue
The structural changes Amarillo made boosted its three-year graduation rate from 13% to 22% between the fall of 2015 and 2018, according to President Russell Lowery-Hart. It also contributed to an increase in the share of full-time students from 25% to 45% over that same period. He added that the improvements were a result of the college's shift in attention from academics to students' broader needs.
Amarillo's new Advocacy and Resource Center was the focus of a campaign launched in October 2017 called No Excuses 2020, which calls attention to a variety of supports for low-income and other underserved students. The center uses analytics and predictive modeling based on retention data, FAFSA information and other reports about student employment, dependents, marital standing and academic success to identify at-risk students and direct them to the appropriate services.
Those include counseling and intervention programs, a food pantry and a clothing closet. It also connects students with community resources for access to services such as housing, transportation, legal support and child care.
Last fall, 90% of students who were offered such services used them, and about 70% of that group was still enrolled in the spring. That's compared to just 33% of students who were offered but did not use the services and remained enrolled in the spring.
"We're beginning to better understand these students and see how successful they can be if we address their unique needs and help them develop their very valuable skills and strengths."
Vice president of student services, Pasadena City College
Acknowledging that students' lives outside of campus can have a significant impact on their academic performance, other community colleges are making similar moves.
Montgomery College offers free parking and public transportation, along with low-cost or free food from food pantries. Asnuntuck Community College, in Enfield, Connecticut, offers free child care, funded by the student government and supported by parents, who are required to volunteer. Similar discounted child care centers are offered at a number of community colleges thanks to a federal program that got more funding last year.
In California, PCC staffs its unique Veterans Resource Center with caseworkers who help veterans navigate college and connect them with a variety of community resources, including mental health services. The center also offers a class designed to help navigate the transition to college and civilian life.
"We're beginning to better understand these students and see how successful they can be if we address their unique needs and help them develop their very valuable skills and strengths," PCC's Olivo said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the increase in full-time students at Amarillo College as a result of its structural changes. It increased from 25% to 45% from 2015 to 2018.