Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.