Removing Barriers to Community College Completion

Eleven million students – more than 45% of the US undergraduate population – are enrolled at community colleges. These institutions play a particularly important role in ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to postsecondary education. While students from the top socioeconomic quartile outnumber students from the bottom quartile 14 to 1 at the most selective universities, students from the bottom quartile outnumber students from the top quartile by nearly 2 to 1 at community colleges (Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It,” in Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College). For many students, open access, low cost, and proximity to home makes community colleges the most viable option for postsecondary education.

While community colleges play an important role in creating access to postsecondary education, they face great difficulty producing graduates. Although some community college students are not seeking a degree, only about 10% of full-time candidates for an Associate’s Degree graduate within two years, and less than 25% graduate within three. Low graduation rates limit the economic mobility of community college students, as, unsurprisingly, students that finish their Associate’s degree earn more money and are less likely to be unemployed than those that fail to do so. Completing an Associate’s degree also enables a community college student to pursue further education and the economic benefits of a 4-year or graduate degree.

Why, then, are community college students unlikely to complete a degree? Community college students face many barriers to success, three of which are:

  • Financial barriers: in addition to tuition costs, students weigh the opportunity cost of not working while attending classes and must navigate an often difficult-to-understand system for receiving financial aid.

  • Unclear academic pathways: unclear degree requirements and limited access to academic advising often leads students to enroll in courses that don’t fulfill their remaining graduation requirements. On average, students that earn an Associate’s degree complete 35% more credits than the minimum necessary to earn their degree.

  • Part time attendance: students attending community college part-time are highly unlikely to graduate. Less than 8% of part-time students earn an Associate’s degree within four years.

Awareness of low graduation rates at community colleges is growing, as is understanding of the barriers causing them, leading stakeholders to take action. In an effort to bolster graduation rates, New Hampshire is reducing the cost of community college tuition by five percent, beginning in the Fall of 2014. Similarly, foundations are funding programs aimed at improving community college completion by supporting students as they navigate the financial aid and academic advising systems.

While these efforts are steps in the right direction, the most successful efforts to improve community college graduation rates simultaneously attack all three of these barriers simultaneously. One such effort, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program run by the City University of New York, has led to a 55% three-year graduation rate versus a 25% completion rate for a comparison group of similar students. The ASAP program reduces financial barriers to success by providing tuition waivers and public transportation passes, creates a clear academic pathway by defining programs of study and providing students with comprehensive academic advising, and requires that students enroll in a full-time degree program.

Another program that targets all three barriers to community college completion is the Business Technology Early College High School (B-TECH), a 6-year high school in Queens, NY, that will provide students with the opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree. B-TECH, which will begin operation in September 2014 and is the result of a partnership among the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York at Queensborough Community College, and technology company SAP, will remove the financial barrier to completing an Associate’s degree by providing tuition-free coursework. It creates a clear academic pathway for students, as they are able to pursue a degree in either Business Technology Development or Business Technology Solutions, each of which has a prescribed series of courses for students to take. B-TECH not only enrolls students full-time, but also creates a continuous path from high school to community college, creating a natural bridge to a full-time program of study.

Overcoming barriers to community college graduation is difficult, as doing so requires a combination of funding, development of academic pathways and work with students to educate them on these pathways, and student willingness and ability to attend community college full-time. As a result, current efforts that address all three barriers to success are limited in scale. Only 2,200 students were enrolled in ASAP during the Fall of 2012. Even if replicated in other geographies, the B-TECH model is limited in the number of students it can serve, as it can only be replicated on a school-by-school basis. Both models rely on philanthropic dollars to build their programs, subsidize tuition, and sustain their operations, making them difficult to develop and scale.

For these success stories to be scaled beyond one community college system or one particular school, barriers to graduation need to be addressed on a system-wide level. The good news is there are signs that all of these barriers are being addressed in system-wide ways. The Obama Administration’s proposals for improving postsecondary education could make progress toward eliminating the financial barriers faced by community college students by simplifying the application process for financial aid, lowering interest rates on student loans, and incentivizing colleges to keep the cost of attendance low. Systems of community colleges, possibly spurred by “performance funding” polices that are being adopted by many states, or financial incentives for improving graduation rates, might clarify academic pathways and provide greater assistance to students navigating the financial aid process. Systems of community colleges might also encourage students to enroll full-time by creating incentives for taking a 15-unit or greater course load – a strategy that has already been adopted by some 4-year institutions. These system-level reforms show promise for improving community college graduation rates.

Improving community college graduation rates is an important step toward ensuring economic mobility, creating equitable educational opportunities for all students, and developing a workforce able to meet the growing need for highly skilled workers. We are starting to make progress and the programs discussed above provide cause for optimism that we will continue to break down the barriers faced by community college students at scale through system-level change.


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