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The community college completion challenge

The recently released MDRC evaluation of the Detroit Promise underscores the community college completion challenge. Despite adding financial incentives and intensive supports to free tuition, only 29 (five percent) of 390 students who started in the program earned at least 48 credits by the end of their second year. Which was better than the three percent (6 out of 199) of students who got free tuition but did not receive the financial incentives or intensive supports.

The above paragraph in no way is meant as a criticism of the program. The Detroit Regional Chamber deserves a lot of credit for initiating the Detroit Promise and partnering with MDRC to add financial incentives and supports.

Rather, the purpose of the opening paragraph is to make clear that the challenge of significantly improving community college completion rates requires far more than free tuition or even free tuition combined with mandatory and intensive student supports.
We are using 48 credits earned in two years as a proxy for on track to earn an Associates degree in three years. There may well be some who have not earned 48 credits after two years who earn a degree by the completion of this school year. And certainly there are some of the initial program enrolees who enrolled or transferred to another higher education institution who will earn an Associates Degree within three year or B.A. within six years. That said it is, almost certain, that of the 390 initial program enrolees the proportion of those who earn a degree will be quite small.

It also is true that the Detroit Promise participants are, almost certainly, a cohort who enter college with the greatest completion challenges. Program participant live in the City of Detroit and have graduated from any high school located in the city. Many will have entered college with some combination of serious academic challenges; financial challenges far beyond the ability to pay for tuition; and a variety of non-academic challenges.

But the above are challenges, not acceptable reasons/excuses for low completion rates. Higher education institutions need to be designed for success of all students.

This is the central thesis of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.Its authors––all from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University––write:

Community colleges were designed to expand college enrollment, particularly among underrepresented students, and to do this at a low cost. They have been extraordinarily successful at achieving those goals. However, colleges designed to maximize course enrollment are not well designed to maximize completion of high quality-programs of study. In particular colleges offer an array of often-disconnected courses, programs and support-services that students are expected to navigate on their own.

… Instead, they need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating a more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths. In short, to maximize both access and success, a fundamental redesign is necessary.

The MDRC Detroit Promise evaluation report is entitled A Path from Access to Success. Success––not access––by all students needs to become the mission of community colleges (actually all education institutions). And that needs to be accompanied by an understanding that to achieve that mission involves fundamental redesign of community colleges.

As we detailed in a previous post Redesigning American’s Community Colleges lays out four fundamental areas where redesign is required to improve completion rates and labor market outcomes:

  1. Redesign from a cafeteria-style self-service model to a guided pathways model. Moving from students largely on their own in choosing from a multitude of courses and credentials to limiting student choice to “educationally coherent pathways, each with clearly defined learning outcomes that build across the curriculum and are aligned with requirements for education and career advancement in the given field.”
  2. Guiding students. What the book calls intake and student supports. This involves moving to intensive and mandatory student counseling. Everything from helping students pick a pathway or a program that leads to a good-paying job and career; to staying on top of student progress and intervening when a student is experiencing difficulties in staying on track no matter if the reason is academic or otherwise; and to providing high-quality job placement services for those who earn credentials.
  3. Moving student instruction from lecture/imparting content to a “learning facilitation approach to instruction, which focuses on building students’ academic motivation and metacognition”.
  4. Dealing with unprepared students through a complete redesign of developmental education.

So the main lesson we need to learn from the Detroit Promise to date is the community college completion challenge will require fundamental change in the mission and design of community colleges. Anything less will, almost certainly, leave us far short of Governor Whitmer’s goal of 60 percent of Michigan adults with a post-secondary credential of value. And, probably even more importantly, far away from the goal of higher education as the path to equal opportunity for all.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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