The college completion agenda has stalled. A decade in, a smaller percentage of first-time students are earning a degree or certificate.
It’s not for want of trying. Colleges have launched myriad programs aimed at ensuring students earn more college credits and degrees. We have rethought developmental education, revamped student services, bolstered tutoring and academic counseling, and launched student learning centers.
Yet it turns out that a piece-by-piece approach is not what benefits the largest number of our students. Many colleges have not been able to fully integrate their efforts across an entire campus or system. Community college leaders are recognizing that isolated efforts -- no matter how well intentioned -- will fail to comprehensively alter the institutional culture if not designed to move to scale from their inception.
This is consistent with a conclusion of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, just out this year. Pathways reforms -- often referred to as either “structured” or “guided” pathways -- have evolved from a solid base of research on what works, according to authors Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins. But what often is missing is cohesion and integration. They call on colleges to “undertake a more fundamental rethinking of their organization and culture."
The current generation of pathways reforms has become the strategy of choice to address longstanding problems of completion, but many of these efforts suffer from the same omissions.
Pathways efforts include several key elements that help students gain traction toward degrees. Students typically receive orientation that includes an assessment of their career interests and academic and noncognitive needs. They choose and enter streamlined, coherent academic programs organized around specific program pathways -- a set of courses that meet academic requirements across a broad discipline grouping such as health sciences, business or education -- with clear learning goals aligned with further education and/or a career. Students’ routes through college have a mapped-out design, with course requirements made clear and visible. Pathways efforts also provide intensive student supports, such as academic advising and career counseling, and monitor student progress, providing frequent and customized feedback to learners.
Like the hodgepodge of pilot programs in previous rounds of community college improvement, these efforts won’t produce systemic change unless they are designed in an integrated, holistic way and colleges make the commitment to implement them at scale. Today, experts who have studied these initiatives around the country suggest that only a handful of campuses have introduced pathways efforts that are truly comprehensive.
The vast majority of these initiatives “are pathways in name only,” says Michael Collins of Jobs for the Future (JFF), an organization that has been studying pathways efforts through its role in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Completion by Design initiative. “All too often, what’s missing is an overarching vision that weaves together multiple interventions. Organizational culture change and holistic integration of programs must be at the heart of pathways.”
As Kay McClenney, senior adviser to the American Association of Community Colleges, observed, “There are some colleges that have mapped programs. But there is still so much work to be done. They still must grapple with questions about what their faculty recommend as the appropriate core courses. They need their faculty to determine the right math for their programs. They need to embed advising in the pathways. They need to integrate student supports so they are comprehensive and inescapable. They need to ask how to incorporate applied learning and co-curricular experiences.”
In other words, this takes years of work. A decade of experience shows that institutions that don’t focus on complete transformation see only short-term progress and find themselves far from achieving desired outcomes.
At my college, Davidson County Community College, we have learned through our participation in Completion by Design that effective pathways programs engage every part of campus -- including leadership, admissions, financial aid, registration, full and part-time faculty, student supports, and communications -- to ensure that every student benefits. The programs make sense to the students, and faculty and staff work collectively to support student success.
We also have partnered with our state colleagues to implement policies that support the success we are achieving at DCCC. North Carolina’s new multiple-measures placement policy, for example, allowed us to enroll students in college-level courses with instructional supports in ways that we believed would be more effective than our prior approach to developmental education. Similarly, the state’s new Comprehensive Articulation Agreement pushes colleges to design transfer pathways with clearly defined goals, courses guaranteed to transfer, alignment to university requirements and built-in guidance and advising.
As part of a new national task force on building pathways to credentials, my colleagues in the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future believe it is absolutely critical for institutions to create a vision of systematic, total transformation. Moreover, we must bring state partners with us, because policy (and funding) can make the difference between amplifying or undermining campus reform efforts.
The trust is made up of leaders from colleges and state systems. Together, we are exploring the state and federal policy levers that can help spread pathways reforms from a handful of colleges to the majority of colleges. We also will seek out ideas within the field on key policy issues, such as how to engage as leaders in institutional reform, how to equip our college leaders with change management skills, using incentives and improved financial aid to better support students, and ensuring that the pathways we build are based on what makes sense to students, rather than being dictated by the incongruities in federal education and workforce policy.
Community colleges have a great opportunity to redefine pathways from a host of successful pilots into a holistic, integrated program of transformation for our colleges to better serve 21st-century students. Experts point to evidence emerging from colleges such as the City Colleges of Chicago and the City University of New York.
CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program emphasizes enriched academic, financial and personal supports including comprehensive and personalized advisement, career counseling, tutoring, tuition waivers, transportation aid, and additional financial assistance to defray the cost of textbooks. A study completed last year by the research group MDRC found that after three years, ASAP has nearly doubled the percentage of developmental education students who have completed an associate degree: 40 percent of the study’s program group had received a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group.
New pathways project grants recently announced by the American Association of Community Colleges aim to expand holistic pathways efforts even further. AACC will provide support, training and networking opportunities to 30 colleges already progressing on a pathways student success agenda with the goal of deepening their efforts and creating a model for the level of change management and leadership required. As these and other efforts take root, let’s make sure we don’t settle for reforms that are pathways in name only.
Mary Rittling is president of Davidson County Community College. She serves as the chair of the Building Pathways to Credentials Task Force of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success, a new initiative led by Jobs for the Future to advance state policy improvements for community colleges.
Increasing numbers of state policy makers are awakening to the difficulty community college students have transferring their credits toward a degree at four-year colleges and universities. They are right to be worried. Research has found that fewer than 60 percent of community college transfer students could transfer most of their credits and 15 percent were able transfer very few and essentially had to start over. The resulting waste of time and money -- not to mention lost human potential -- represents one of the biggest challenges to student success U.S. higher education faces today.
Acknowledging the problem and fixing it, however, are two different things. And attempts to address the issue at the state level, while doing some good, may have unintended negative consequences. The good news is, as some states are starting to show, this can be fixed.
When state policy makers consider how to address the large numbers of credits lost during transfer, they face a conundrum. Premajor requirements for different programs of study vary, and the same major at two different four-year colleges can have different program designs, course requirements and levels of academic rigor. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in psychology at one state university may align with medical school requirements, and thus require more science courses than a psychology program focused on the field more generally.
In the face of this often overwhelming variation in four-year degree requirements, policy makers in some states have put their trust in a common denominator: ensuring transferability of nonmajor lower-division courses, often referred to as the general education core, and leaving the major-specific requirements to each individual four-year institution. In Mississippi, for example, this guarantees transfer to a four-year institution for the community college student who completes 41 credits from a broad array of approved courses. Similar rules exist in Ohio, Texas and several other states.
Sound good? Not so fast.
In states where such rules exist, the gen-ed core at many community colleges has become the default curriculum for the first two or three semesters. On one level, this makes sense. Community college advisers and faculty members reason that counseling students to complete the gen-ed core first will reduce credit loss and preserve students’ options when selecting a four-year transfer destination and a major.
But preserving options may be the enemy of student success. In fact, if pursuing the gen-ed core becomes a reason to delay program choice, it can actually limit students’ options and reduce the chances for degree completion in three important ways.
First, choosing a major or at least a broad field of interest before transferring can help ensure that students take the right gen-ed courses -- courses that will both transfer and count toward their major. For example, many science courses taught at community colleges count toward gen-ed requirements, but only some of those courses are rigorous enough to align to the STEM major tracks at most four-year universities. Similarly, undergraduate psychology programs at four-year colleges increasingly require courses in which students learn research methods, instruction that is often lacking in community college introductory psychology courses. Consequently, community college students seeking to transfer in psychology may not have the foundational research skills of a student who entered a university as a freshman.
Moreover, in many majors, it is essential for students to begin their major-related courses as soon as possible if they are to have any hope of graduating in four years. Science majors need to take a series of rigorous courses with laboratory components that are nearly impossible for a student to handle in their final two years. The same goes for engineering and nursing. Studio art and architecture majors have studio courses that realistically cannot be completed in the junior and senior year. For many majors, programs are thus designed to ensure that students spread demanding major-related courses over more than two years. Delaying program choice prohibits students from doing so. If students don’t take some of these courses early on, they may essentially have to start over when they transfer.
Finally, without a sense of direction, students may struggle to feel connected to their academic course work as they complete their gen-ed courses. When a student interested in accounting can take accounting classes while simultaneously working on English and Math 101, she can better see how these courses add up to an associate degree and then a bachelor’s -- while remaining engaged in her area of interest. Clear direction is an essential counterweight to the many challenges and demands that can pull students away from studying, attending class and, ultimately, completing their degrees.
However, these problems can be resolved. Under pressure from policy makers to better meet the growing need for STEM workers in the state, higher education institutions in Washington State have worked together to develop field-specific pathways, including an associate of science in transfer that four-year colleges report provides strong preparation for majors in biological sciences and engineering and computer sciences.
Research by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges indicates that students with these “AS-T degrees” who transfer to a university are more likely to earn a bachelor’s in STEM fields and to complete fewer credits overall than students who followed the more general education-oriented statewide transfer agreement. In other fields, state “major-related transfer degrees” are being created that will transfer for both general education credits and most major-specific credits required by universities in the state. Major-specific transfer pathways are at various stages of development in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee and a few other states.
Still, these systems are far from perfect. Because program-specific premajor requirements can vary across four-year colleges and universities, the chances that students will take courses that fail to transfer toward major requirements will always be present. Even in states with field- or major-specific pathways, four-year institutions need to develop program-specific transfer guides to help students and their advisers understand requirements unique to their programs. But systems like those in Washington State offer a way to pursue two important objectives simultaneously: increasing efficient credit transfer and helping students find direction.
It will be years before such polices are developed and refined in every state. In the meantime, community colleges and their four-year partners must understand the limitations of guaranteed gen-ed credit transfer and help prospective transfer students develop a sense of direction as early as possible. Only by doing so can they deliver what students and taxpayers expect in an era of increasingly scarce resources: college degrees that students can earn affordably and relatively quickly.
Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.