To Improve Completion Rates, Community Colleges Need to Help Students "Get with the Program"

NEW YORK, September 7, 2011 — Community colleges should focus more attention on helping students choose and enter college-level programs of study, suggests new research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Two studies from CCRC have found that entering an academic or vocational program is strongly correlated with degree completion, regardless of background or academic preparation—yet too many entering community college students do not get far enough to enter a program.

In a newly released study, CCRC tracked more than 62,000 entering students at Washington State community and technical colleges over seven years and found that only about half ever became a program “concentrator” by passing at least three college-level courses in a single field. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were even less likely to enter a program. Overall, less than 30% of entering students completed a certificate or degree or transferred to a four-year institution within seven years. However, success rates were substantially higher—approaching 50%—for students who entered a concentration.

An earlier study analyzing community college data found that the sooner students entered a concentration, the more likely they were to succeed. More than half of students who entered a program of study in their first year earned a community college credential or transferred to a four-year college within five years. Only about a third of students who entered a program of study in their second year completed a credential or transferred. For students who did not enter a program until their third year, the success rate was only around 20%.

These findings are significant in light of the low overall completion rates for community college students. Nationally, fewer than 36% of first time community college students earn a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years.

To earn a credential, students must first enter a coherent college-level program of study, but many community college students enroll without clear goals for college and careers. Community colleges typically offer a wide range of programs, but most provide little guidance to help students choose and enter a program. Colleges carefully track course enrollments but often do not know which students are in which programs. CCRC’s research suggests that by helping students enter programs early on, community colleges can improve completion rates.

The authors make several recommendations for how community college administrators can encourage program entry among their students. These include requiring all first-time college students to take a college success course in which they create an educational plan tied to career goals; offering contextualized remediation instruction that prepares students for particular programmatic pathways; and creating prescribed course sequences for each program, minimizing electives, to help students complete as quickly as possible.