Community college is often perceived as the underdog in American higher education. Many are plagued by treacherous drop-out rates, poor teaching standards and dismal job prospects. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to graduate.
But inside some of these institutions, revolution is stirring. A lack of opportunities for ordinary Americans is driving colleges to rebuild and rethink. Many of them are finding innovative ways to help their students buck the trend by staying in school and succeeding.
“One of the first things that impressed me about community colleges was the passion that so many instructors and administrators have about the mission to help so many low income students succeed and move forward to success in their lives,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Jaggars, who has co-authored a book called “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” sees community colleges as gateways of opportunity for students. Still, she thinks the schools have a lot of room for growth.
“For so many of these students, they're the first in their family to go to college. It feels like they're stepping into a whole new universe, that the world might be opening up for them. And for them to, you know, maybe get halfway through the first semester and feel like they're floundering, to feel like they're failing and to withdraw, is really, really heartbreaking. And the faculty who see this every semester, they want to know how they can stop that.” Jaggars says
She recommends community colleges do a better job of intentionally crafting programs that help students meet their goals.
"Community colleges are designed to serve the whole community which is a very diverse mix of people with different kinds of goals and who have different types of issues that they're dealing with in their life outside of school," Jaggars said, "Community colleges need to do a much better job of first helping students explore and identify their goals, and then help support students to meet those goals."
Jaggars also thinks community colleges don't take their duty to teach liberal arts seriously enough.
“Students really need to have the kinds of soft skills that employers are looking for — creative thinking, and being able to work with other people and being able to learn things on your own,” Jaggars says. “Those components need to be integrated into career technical education through some of those liberal arts types of courses.”
One of the biggest problems students who attend community colleges face is a low level of preparedness for the rigor of college-level classes.The Education Commission of the States estimates that nearly 60 percent of community college students are in need of remediation, meaning they need to take lower level education courses to build basic skills in key subject areas.
At City University in New York, nearly 80 percent of incoming students need remediation. But CUNY has identified a way to help that overwhelming majority of incoming students — a program called START.
“START is a very unusual program because it takes the ones who need at least two remedial classes in math, English or writing and it delays their enrollment. So they don't have to spend their money [on college-level prep classes]. They can just spend one semester and focus on passing those [remedial] classes,” says Beth Fertig, contributing editor for education at WNYC.
CUNY’s START program has so far had great success. Students who enroll in the program pay just $75 for an intense period of remedial classes. Nearly 51 percent of students who completed the program were able to “start college fresh and pay their tuition ... without having to take remedial classes,” says Fertig.
The START program is unusual among community colleges, however. CUNY had to design its own curriculum, hire its own faculty and give them advisors, making for a dauntingly expensive start-up cost — something that will be difficult for other states to replicate.
Still, there are others who are working to raise the profile and the quality of community colleges.
Josh Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, which tracks the rising stars among the nation’s community colleges. Every two years, Aspen awards a $1 million prize to the best school.
“The first thing the Aspen Prize aims to do is show how great community colleges can be, to elevate our national understanding of the importance of the sector,” Wyner says. “The second purpose of the prize is to identify what excellence really looks like and help other colleges emulate that.”
Wyner sees community colleges as engines of social mobility and economic growth with innovative programs that are helping prisoners start over and reviving agriculture through wine-making programs. They're training digger operators and educating sustainable energy creators. Community colleges are also figuring out how to educate the rapidly rising immigrant population.
“I do this work because I believe deeply in the opportunity of individuals through education for social mobility in a capitalist system. ... If we don't make good on the promise for people to enter that world with the skills they need, our economic system makes no sense,” Wyner says. “Higher education is not the only way, but I would say [it’s] certainly one of the most important ways for us to create equal opportunity for people to take advantage of what is a very dynamic and open society.”