It’s time to make college completion the priority at community colleges

I support President Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free for those students who stay on track academically. Expanding education opportunity and outcomes is an essential component of raising the standard of living of all Americans.

That said, taking tuition off the table as an obstacle is not nearly enough to dramatically change the community college completion rate — which is what matters for both individuals and the country.

President Obama and Gov. Snyder are two of many political and business leaders who have made community colleges central to their goal of dealing with labor shortages in the skilled trades and other mid-skill occupations. But that requires earning an associate’s degree or occupational certificate, not simply enrolling at a community college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes completion data for all higher education institutions by state. It’s worth checking out: The three-year graduation rate for first-time college students enrolled full time at Michigan community colleges in 2013 is 12.6 percent, compared to 19.4 percent nationally.

When you include all full-time students, not just first-time college students, the Michigan completion rate for both certificates and two-year degrees is 18.2 percent. The cost per completer in Michigan is $42,211, nearly $5,000 more than the national cost.

At Grand Rapids Community College, the three-year graduation rate is 12.5 percent and for certificates plus two-year degrees it’s 15.9 percent. The cost per completer is $67,520.

Clearly, there is a need for improvement.

So what role does high tuition play in these low completion rates? Two recent New York Times columns provide a good overview.

Eduardo Porter, in “The Promise and Failure of Community Colleges,” makes clear that more than a tuition-free plan is needed to raise college attainment rates.

“The first is that they (community colleges) could be the nation’s most powerful tools to improve the opportunities of less privileged Americans, giving them a shot at harnessing a fast-changing job market and building a more equitable, inclusive society for all of us.

“The second is that, at this job, they have largely failed. Whether (Obama’s) plan ultimately delivers on its promise, however, will depend less on how many students enter than how many successfully navigate their way out. Today, only 35 percent of a given entry cohort attain a degree within six years, according to government statistics. And it’s getting worse. Community college graduation rates have been declining over the last decade.”

In “Support Our Students,” David Brooks proposes an alternative to the president’s tuition-free plan. He agrees community college graduation is important both for the students and country. But he thinks there is a better way to spend the billions proposed by the president.

“We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970’s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.

“Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. It’s based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.”

Rather than free tuition, Brooks would provide funding for low-income students for living expenses (textbooks, housing, transportation, etc.), guidance counselors and mentors, child care and fixing what he calls the remedial education mess.

It’s clear that unless community colleges deal with the issues raised by Porter and Brooks, the promise of the president’s proposal will be largely unrealized. It’s time we make college completion the priority at our community colleges.

Far too many community colleges are organized on a sink-or-swim model. We admit them, provide the classes they need to graduate, and everything else is up to the students. That model gets high drop-out rates and needs to change.

The good news is some leading-edge community colleges are getting much higher completion rates. In the report “Increasing College Graduation Rates for Low-Income, Minority, and First Gen Students,” my organization, Michigan Future, provides a case study of Valencia Community College (Orlando, Florida) that has a three-year graduation rate of 40 percent. MDRC published an evaluation report of the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs titled “Doubling Graduation Rates.” It found: “40 percent of the program group (those enrolling in need of remediation) had received a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group.” Both reports document that Valencia and CUNY are getting much higher graduation rates because of how they have redesigned supports provided to students.

Increasing college completion rates is doable. We need to make it the priority at all Michigan community colleges.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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