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How Do We Get More Community College Students to Graduate?

President Obama tells us that by 2020, we need an additional eight million more Americans to graduate from college. The pressure is now on for community colleges to deliver.

This is the time of year Inver Hills Community College Vice President Barbara Read stands in the door of the admissions office and greets new students with a four-word question: “What is your goal?”

The question goes to the heart of the Minnesota college’s five-year-old “Finish What You Start” effort to improve retention, completion and transfer rates. Whether a student is there to earn credits before transferring to a four-year university, or for an associate’s degree or a certificate, Inver Hills has a message.

“From recruitment all the way through to graduation, we want students to know we’re the place that will help you finish what you start,” said Read, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at the 40-year-old college in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. “It’s a mantra and an opportunity to build a campus-wide spirit.”

The program includes “learning communities,” where the same group of students take two or three classes together that are often linked around common themes or questions. This program, along with condensed remedial (also known as “developmental”) classes, is helping students stay in school throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, the fifth-largest of its kind in the nation, with 25 community and technical colleges and seven universities.

The new efforts in Minnesota come at a time when three-year completion rates at two-year public colleges in the U.S. have remained at just under 30 percent in the last decade. However, the number of students sticking with school after their first year is at an all time high, according to Wes Habley, principal associate at ACT, Inc., the nonprofit organization offering educational and workplace measurement and research services.

One reason for the increase in first-year retention rates is the downturn economy and high unemployment rate, Habley said.

“Historically, when unemployment increases, so does college enrollment,’’ Habley said. “It is likely that more students are opting for community college because of lower costs than four-year counterparts. And, it is likely that more students stay at community colleges in the absence of employment opportunities or as an alternative to transferring to a more expensive four-year college.”

Efforts like those underway in Minnesota and several other states are also making a difference, said Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City. “There’s a flowering of innovation, new philanthropy and funding and a new conversation. There is much greater attention to being more intrusive in the lives of community college students…it’s a sea-change, and an acknowledgement that graduation counts.”

President Barack Obama’s oft-stated goal of getting more Americans to complete college and get a degree is one motivating factor for schools, said Jim Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. Jacobs also attributes higher retention rates to the caliber of students who may be choosing community colleges over four-year institutions to save money.

In Minnesota, several two-year colleges are also responding to a statewide accountability push and a commitment to national efforts like Complete College America as they roll out student-success programs.

In the last year, MnSCU’s first to second-year retention rate has started to budge, rising two percentage points, said Leslie Mercer, MnSCU’s associate vice chancellor for research, planning and effectiveness. In 2006, Minnesota’s retention rate was 26th in the nation.

Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, the largest two-year college in the MnSCU system, is requiring new students who test at a pre-college reading level to take a two-credit “New Student Seminar” and to meet with advisors twice a semester for 30 minutes each time.

For the first time this fall, Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota set an admissions application deadline for new full-time students. Students who registered after Aug. 15 are limited to taking seven credits until the spring term.

“We’ve looked at the data on full-time students who the last minute and have found that their chances for success were very low,” said Matt Crawford, Normandale’s director of admissions.

Normandale found over several years that 40-60 percent of students who applied between August 1 and Augist 14 were placed on probation at the end of the semester, meaning they didn’t complete 67 percent of their coursework.

“Withdrawals and grades below C were very common,” Crawford said.

These approaches might seem like no-brainers at four-year institutions. But two-year colleges typically offer open-door admissions policies and therefore accept students who test at pre-college levels, as well as returning students whose math may be rusty and immigrants trying to master English as a second language before they can advance to college-level coursework.

While Minnesota frequently captures the top average ACT composite score in the nation, nearly half of its 2005 high-school graduates who enrolled in the state’s two-year community or technical colleges needed at least one remedial course, compared with 29 percent at four-year institutions, according to a MnSCU report.

Compounding the persistence problem is that Minnesota’s tuition and fees—nearly $5,000 for a full-time student—at its two-year public colleges are the third-highest in the nation, according to a 2009-10 ranking by the Higher Education Coordinating Board in the state of Washington. Minnesota taxpayers now pick up 46 percent of the cost of tuition compared to 10 years ago when they picked up two-thirds.

The success efforts are trying to help students get more bang for their buck.

“The majority of entering students do place at the developmental level in math and a much lower percentage in English development classes,” said Read of Inver Hills. “They not only spend extra semesters in college, they also use their financial aid for development classes rather than courses” that would lead to a degree or certificate.

One solution: Inver Hills has designed developmental math classes to be completed in one semester instead of two.

With President Obama calling for eight million more college graduates by 2020, two-year colleges are feeling the pressure in the shadows of universities that have stricter admission policies. At the same time, private foundations like Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are funding efforts to help improve access and success for underrepresented college students. (Disclosure: Lumina and Gates also provide funding to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, which produces The Hechinger Report.)

“Clearly, we need to do a better job,” said Century College President Larry Litecky, who serves on the national board of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which is based at the University of Texas-Austin.

“Public policy tends to focus on the research institutions, yet the majority of our students are in the two-year world. I’m not particularly worried about how the top quartile of classes is doing as I am about what’s happening to the rest of the students — and that’s the group that’s being very unsuccessful,” Litecky said.

Kathy Matel, Century’s “student success coordinator,” aims to change that. She is seeing positive results from Century’s pilot learning communities set up five years ago for pre-college-level or developmental students, a concept pioneered by the John N. Gardener Institute of Excellence in Undergraduate Education (formerly the Policy Center on the First Year of College).

Century now has 500 students in 23 learning communities, or groups of students taking remedial classes together, where their teachers also coordinate the curriculum. For example, a learning community’s reading and writing class and a speech class took on “The American Dream” as a joint theme. Matel says students left with a deeper understanding of the theme because they had to engage in reading, writing, speaking and the interpretation of ideas.

“Students are in the same courses so they get to know people and have social interaction,” she said. “A learning community helps students make the connection with the college and with each other.”

“The success of learning communities, though, hinges on the type of support offered to students, who at community colleges tend to be older and often work part- or even full-time,” said Vince Tinto, a professor at Syracuse University who has researched and written extensively about learning communities. “The one place, perhaps the only place, where they come together is in the classroom,’’ Tinto said.

Century has compared the progress of developmental reading students who were in learning communities and those “winging” it. The fall-to-fall retention in learning communities was up 20 percent, withdrawal was down 7 percent and the grade point average of students was 2.45, Matel said. Developmental students who did not participate posted a 1.89 GPA.

MnSCU’s Mercer expects such data-gathering to become an important tool as enrollment continues to grow and state aid for higher education shrinks.

“That’s where we think knowing more about how to customize the work that we do with students to make sure that we’re getting the right kinds of interventions, or the right information, to the right kind of student” will be useful, she said.

Linda Baer, MnSCU’s former vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, compares the potential of the data-gathering to’s customer research, Mercer said.

“If you think about what does when you order a book, they say, ‘People like you who read that book would like these other seven books,’ ” Mercer said. “We’re a ways away from that, but that’s what we’d like to do so that we could say to the student who’s coming in, ‘Oh, people like you who had this kind of experience in high school and want to become a best when we do these following things for you, and you do the following things.’ ”

This article was written as part of MinnPost’s partnership with The Hechinger Report. The nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet is affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Liz Willen is associate editor of the Hechinger Report.

Casey Selix also contributed reporting.

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