Picking Up the Pace

Community colleges across the country are responding to the call by many education experts to get the lead out and meaningfully decrease their students’ time to degree and program completion.

July 6, 2010

Community colleges across the country are responding to the call by many education experts to get the lead out and meaningfully decrease their students’ time to degree and program completion.

Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, for example, will change from the semester to a trimester class format this fall. Classes will run for 14 weeks instead of 16 weeks, and the summer term will have just as many course offerings as the fall and spring terms. While each class will be about ten minutes longer, the most motivated students will be able to earn an associate degree just under a year and a half — compared to what had been the norm of two years (with a summer off).

“Our students will graduate earlier in the year than those at other colleges,” says Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, the college’s president. “Southern’s graduates will be ready to enter the work force sooner as well, giving them an edge when applying for jobs.”

The new trimester format will complement the college’s existing “fast track” option, which allows students to earn an associate degree in 14-16 months by completing one course at a time every two weeks. About a quarter of the college’s 2,200 students already take advantage of this accelerated option.

But the new trimester format will speed up everyone’s time to degree completion and, Tomblin hopes, improve the college’s graduation and retention rates in the process. She believes more community colleges should find ways to accelerate their degree programs, given evidence that students in these programs are more likely to graduate than their counterparts in traditionally-paced courses.

“It’s just another opportunity to do something different,” says Tomblin, explaining that the college was inspired to make the scheduling change in response to President Obama’s challenge to double the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential by 2020. “I would hope more colleges will look into this. People are so in a traditional thinking mode that it may take a while to catch on. We need to think about what kind of delivery methods we can bring forward to help everybody.”

Southern’s switch to the trimester format, while only a modest acceleration, is somewhat unusual in that it applies to all students. Many of the community colleges moving in this direction are doing so for cohorts who can enroll full time, but not for all students. Nationally, both the Obama administration and key outside groups, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been urging this speeding up, arguing that too many students in a protracted community college education drop out.

Most prominently, the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has already achieved some success. Officials announced last week that more than half -- 53 percent -- of the program’s initial test cohort of students graduated in three years. Similar programs exist all over the country in areas rural and urban, including at Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan; Inver Hills Community College, in Minnesota; and St. Louis Community College, in Missouri.

Lower Columbia College, in Washington State, will pilot “Transfer Express,” a program in which participating students can earn an associate degree in one year, this fall.

“We’ve always had students that take more credits than is typical because they want to get their degree faster,” explains Laura Brener, the college’s vice president for instruction. “Every community college has those students that are highly motivated, though not necessarily highly capable, who try to do this. If they manage to get through a two-year program in one year, it’s likely in spite of us. We don’t do much in higher education to help these students. We asked, ‘Why not?’ We have students who are doing this, and we’re not helping them. This is a way of deliberately assisting them to finish early.”

The college operates on the quarter system, so students in “Transfer Express” will have to complete six quarters' worth of courses in only four. The program will operate in cohort fashion, keeping the initial pilot group of 25 students together throughout all of their classes and for mandatory study time. Participating students will give up nearly all of their course selection -- the program has preselected which elective subjects the group will take. Brener says that students will take a "broad-based" selection of electives, with the object being to introduce them to a variety of disciplines. The idea that students can make more progress through fewer selections, is another part of the emerging philosophy at CUNY and elsewhere around the country where educators are looking for ways to encourage completion at higher rates and faster rates than in the past.

Students who enroll in the accelerated program could save as much as $500 in tuition, Brener says, noting that the college's tuition rates are less expensive per credit for those who take more credits a quarter.

Brener believes the poor economy has given accelerated degree programs like “Transfer Express” more currency at community colleges like hers. She also thinks more two-year institutions should adopt similar cohort-based programs. Still, she is the first to admit that this accelerated learning method may not be for everyone. (Indeed, some have worried that the growing emphasis on quick job preparation at community colleges may limit the aspirations of some students.)

“Nobody’s trying to replace the typical path with accelerated programs,” Brener explains. “Not everybody’s going to come in college ready. Not only do many students come in without the proper background and skills, but they also don’t come in with the same motivations to complete. There have to be a variety of pathways to meet their needs.”

Officials pushing a similar one-year associate degree program at Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s two-year college system, express a similar sentiment; however, they hope these accelerated programs produce methods that can be used to help all students -- not just those who do not need remediation -- complete.

“We need a variety of ways for students to go directly from high school to college quickly,” says Tom Snyder, Ivy Tech president. “The lowest-cost way is with dual credit while in high school, but we also need to find ways to help more students start college on a full-time basis. That’s an attractive option. There needs to be a policy solution to help … students who work between 30 and 40 hours a week earn their degree faster.”

Like the program at Lower Columbia, Ivy Tech’s accelerated degree program will start with small cohorts of students for a trial run in the fall. The participating students must not need remediation, maintain a minimum 2.5 grade point average and sign a pledge to stay with the program for the full year. The students will also receive a $100 a week stipend to offset some of the personal costs they will incur because they will likely not be able to work a job while in the program.

The college’s Indianapolis campus will offer the associate of applied science in computer information technology and the general studies associate of science in the one-year format, while the college’s Fort Wayne campus will offer the accelerated associate of applied science in health care support.

“We’re a traditional manufacturing state,” Snyder says of Indiana. “But those manufacturers need employees with more skills. To the extent that we can quickly get more people with college degrees into the workforce, that’s what been driving us.”

Snyder thinks more community colleges will adopt similar accelerated programs when they see the success of early adopters like Ivy Tech. Still, he acknowledges that finding funding for these programs is a major difficulty and remains the main barrier to formally introducing such programs to community colleges.


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