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.
Frederika (Fraka) Harmsen, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a professor of geology at California State University at Chico, has been chosen as provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University at Sacramento.
The news that Purdue University likely overstated the impact of its early warning system, Course Signals, has cast doubt about the efficacy of a host of technology products intended to improve student retention and completion. In a commentary published in Inside Higher Ed, Mark Milliron responded by arguing that “next-generation” early warning systems use more robust analytics and will be likely to get better results.
We contend that even with extremely robust and appropriate analytics, programs like Course Signals may still fall short if their adoption ignores the most pressing piece of electronic advising systems — their use on the front end, by advisers, faculty and students. Until more attention is paid to the messy, human side of educational technology, Course Signals — and other programs like it — will continue to show anemic impacts on student retention and graduation.
Over the past year, we have worked with colleges in the process of implementing Integrated Planning and Advising Systems (which include early warning systems like Course Signals). The adoption of early warning systems requires advisers, faculty and students to approach college success differently and should, in theory, refocus attention on how they engage with advising and support services. In practice, however, we have found that colleges consistently underestimate the challenge of ensuring that such systems are adopted effectively by end-users.
The concept of an early alert is far from new. In interviews, instructors and advisers have consistently reminded us that for years, students have received “early alert” feedback in the form of grades and midterm reports. Early warning systems may streamline this process, and provide the reports in a new format (a red light instead of a warning note, for example), but the warning itself isn’t terribly different.
What is potentially different about products like Course Signals is their ability to connect these course-level warnings to the broader student support services offered by the college. If early warning signals are shared across college personnel, and if those warnings serve to trigger new behaviors on their part, then we are likely to see changed student behavior and success. In other words, sending up a red light isn’t likely to influence retention. But if that red light leads to advisers or tutors reaching out to students and providing targeted support, we might see bigger impacts on student outcomes.
Milliron says, for example, that with predictive analytics, “student[s] might be advised away from a combination of courses that could be toxic for him or her.” But such advising doesn’t happen spontaneously: it requires advisers to be more proactive in preparing for and conducting each advising session. They must examine a student’s early warning profile, program plan and case file prior to the session; they must reframe how they present course choices to students; and they have to rethink what the best course combinations are for students with varying educational and career goals, as well as learning styles and abilities. Finally, they may have to link students to additional resources on campus — such as tutoring— and colleges need to ensure these services exist and are of high quality.
For this process to occur, advisers need to be well-versed in how to use the analytics, and be encouraged to move past registering students for the most common set of courses to courses that make sense for the individual. But because most colleges remain uncertain about the process changes that should occur when they adopt early warning systems, they are unable to provide the training that would help faculty and advisers make potentially transformative adjustments in their practice.
Even if colleges do adequately prepare faculty and advisers for this transition, there is much we still don’t know about how students will perceive and use the data and messages they receive from early warning systems. These unknowns may influence the extent to which the systems impact student outcomes.
For example, if students perceive early warnings as a reprimand rather than an opportunity to get help, they may ignore the signals or avoid efforts of college personnel to contact them. To anticipate and mitigate these kinds of potentially negative responses, it is important to understand how all students, not just those who use and enjoy early alert systems, experience and react to such signals. As Milliron notes, we need to figure how to send the right message to the right people in the right way.
Early warning systems are only tools, and colleges will have to pay closer attention to changing end-user culture in order to maximize their effectiveness. Currently, colleges are skipping this step. At the end of the day, even the best system and the best data depend on people to translate them into actions and behaviors that can influence student retention and completion.
Melinda Mechur Karp is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. Also contributing to the essay were Jeff Fletcher, a senior research assistant, HooriSantikianKalamkarian, a research associate, and Serena Klempin, a research associate.